Mike Osborne

Cuneiform RUNE 392

Phil Seamen

The Late Great

SWP 037

Participating in the transition from Jazz to Free Jazz were two British musicians who physically or mentally didn’t survive the 1970s. Individually, alto saxophonist Mike Osborne (1941-2007) and drummer Phil Seamen (1926-1972), participated in many of the define sessions that marked the definition of Jazz in the United Kingdom as a separate, non-American idiom in the 1950s and 1960s (Seamen) and the 1960s and 1970s (Osborne) and these CDs collect some of their most notable work.

Osborne, who forged an original style of FreeBop under Ornette Coleman’s influence with such associates as fellow saxophonist John Surman and Alan Skidmore in SOS, or in Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) big band, tragically fell into drug-induced schizophrenia in his early thirties and was hardly lucid – and certainly out of music – for the remainder of his life. Following a more familiar Swing-to-Bop trajectory, Seaman, who evolved from hard hitting big band player to small group accompanist to the likes of pianist Stan Tracey and alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, was additionally an unreconstructed junkie. When he didn’t wake up one morning in 1972, the autopsy suggested he had enough drugs in his system to have killed him many times beforehand.

Narcotics aside, Seamen was also one of British’s Jazz’s paramount characters, who eccentricities were forgiven due to his talent. Closer in show-off style to Buddy Rich than anyone more modern in his big band days, you can hear on track such as “Kick Off” (1954) with the Jack Parnell big band and “Seamen’s Mission” with Ronnie Scott’s band from the same year how he could rhythmically drive what were essentially dance bands, yet temper the bombast and showmanship with innovative press roll and other advances.

Over the course of the disc he also demonstrates that he was skilled in going full out for a Blues date with vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon (“Times Getting Tougher” 1966); muting his natural ebullience to fit the strictures of soundtrack work (as part of trumpet Dizzy Reese’s quintet for the film Nowhere To Go in 1958; and call on a understanding of exotic rhythms for tenor saxophonist Kenny Graham bands in 1953 and 1956. In a particularly British fashion, Graham’s so-called Satellites and Afro-Cubists (sic), included more Caribbean than African textures and with a posh announcer’s narrative on “Haitian Ritual” and elsewhere produced a sound closer to popular 1950s Exotica and Stan Kenton-like blare than true Latin Jazz.

Seaman was one of the in-retrospect all-stars, including alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, trumpeter Shake Keane, pianist Pat Smythe and bassist Coleridge Goode, who recorded the in-retrospect famous nascent abstract Jazz LPs in the early 1960s. Three tracks from those sessions are included here. But the compositional interest and Seaman and the other musicians’ playing is even more noteworthy on two tracks from a 1959 LP by pianist/vibraharpist Stan Tracey, which also featured bassist Kenny Napier,

Although Harriott’s concepts were compared to those of Ornette Coleman’s, the three instances here – “Tonal”, a give-away title, “Abstract” and “Formation” – are more conservative than Coleman’s work at the time, with lots of walking bass lines and Keane’s higher-pitched variation of Miles Davis’ style. While the alto saxophonist is appropriately stroppy and sharp in his intonation, the end result is more Jazz Messengers Free Bop than The Shape of Jazz to Come. That why Seamen’s on-the-beat rhythmic slapping fits the quintet so well. Like the others his comfort zone is merely being stretched not shattered.

Much more gripping are the Tracey trio tracks from one year pervious. Tracey, who may be the only pianist to have played with both Ted Heath and Evan Parker, developed a unique near-Third Stream concept on “Free” and “Boo-Bah”. On the latter, despite a few anachronistic bomb drops, Seamen’s understated clanks and call-and-response patterning alongside both of Tracey’s instruments allows the tune to develop and flower. “Free”, which is reminiscent of the unique concepts George Russell and Teddy Charles had developed around that time –albeit with larger bands – is as much Bebop as Third Stream. Yet the ringing double bass template, tremolo vibes expansion and fundamental percussion push fits so clearly ball-and-socket that the result is as valuable and polished as a Faberge egg.

Recorded a half-decade later than most of the other tracks and a year before his death, “Reza’, featuring clarinetist Tony Coe, pianist Brian Lemon and bassist Dave Green, suggest what could have transpired had Seamen lived. His Afro-Cuban styled expanded ruffs add to the modernity of the tune. Meanwhile Coe’s double-tongued flutter and squeaks suggests that minimalist free playing is being restrained from bursting through onto the pretty melody.

If a living Seamen might have become a respected, and uniquely British Jazz elder statesman like Ronnie Scott and Tracey; Osborne might have benefitted in the 1980s Jazz revival by becoming a mentor or literal teacher as his compatriots such as Skidmore or drummer Louis Mohol-Moholo did. As this CD, recorded in 1970s and 1966 demonstrates, Osborne was a little too wedded to tonality and rhythm to have take the scary step into Free Music like John Stevens, Derek Bailey and Parker. It would have been far easier for him to have worked with Seamen’s freest playing than with Stevens or Bailey. At the same time you could define his playing as replicating a revered-up bulldozer, chomping mammoth pieces out of every tune he attempted. Simultaneously though, while he soloed, he was an intuitive architect, constructing a free-standing edifice as good as the one he was attacking.

Osborne was also more comfortable as an original than an interpreter, as the four 1966 tunes with John Surman on soprano and baritone saxophones, bassist Harry Miller and drummer Alan Jackson confirm. Apprentice work, coming to terms with The American New Thing, the performance of tunes by Pharoah Sanders, Carla Bley and Booker Little are biting, swirling and authoritative enough via matching reed snorts and quivers, plus some blustering drum beats. But Osborne’s own “An Idea” stands out like a cell phone in a collection of land lines. Intensely probing the futuristic theme, Osborne figuratively sets a staccato fire, leading woody bass and overdone baritone sax lines to merge, then in unison, follow him in exploring the melody’s accented contours.

You can hear the confirmation of this mastery on the six tracks recorded in 1970, which drop Surman and Jackson, retain Miller and bring in Miller’s fellow South African expatriate drummer Moholo-Moholo. The three had already formed a bond through various BOB iterations, and were able to match one another in scorching ferment. A prototypical example of inimitable BritImprov marked this holy trinity, with as few American antecedents as Third World Marxists would have to Russian Communism. Instructively, while rife with high-energy vibrations from squealing sax and rhythm-section buffeting, only on Herbie Hancock’s “Jack Rabbtt” do Charles Lloyd-like slurs affected the sax playing.

Instructively, while the Ornette Coleman influence is strong on Osborne’s five originals, it’s no more pronounced than the oratory style of Winston Churchill would have affected subsequent public speakers. Alto saxophonist Osborne confidently slides into the tenor saxophone register for contrast more readily than alto saxophonist Coleman, sometimes – as on “Scotch Pearl” –bring a Klezmer-like eastern European – not American southwestern – melancholy to his solos. He’s also more traditional with recapped heads and motifs repeated through his compositions.

“1st” and the title track are particular stand-outs. On the first, the drummer’s rattling and pealing of miscellaneous percussion gives the tune and Africanized lilt, while Miller bow strums suggest flamenco antecedents. Together with Osborne’s restrained slurring, the non-American originality of the moderate theme is confirmed. Freshness is the watchword with “Dawn” as well. Some of Coleman’s sadder themes may have been an influence. But Osborne’s double-time treatment of this dirge owes very little to Coleman, especially once Miller’s sympathetic string-pulls add emotional weight and the drummer’s conclusive rat-tat-tats confirm the un-relentless anguish.

Like classic books organized and put into new bindings, both these CDs offer captivating glimpses of first-class improvisations by two British musicians who should be better known. Unfortunately because of the leaders’ fore-shortened playing career, they also remind listeners of what could have been.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dawn: 1. Scotch Pearl 2. Dawn 3. Jack Rabbit 4. TBC 5. 1st 6. TBD 7. Seven By Seven 8. And Now The Queen 9. An Idea 10. Aggression.

Personnel: Dawn: Mike Osborne (alto saxophone); John Surman: tenor saxophone [7-10]; Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo Moholo or Alan Jackson [7-10] (drums)

Track Listing: Late: I Started Playing The Drums 2. Times Getting Tougher 3. Tangerine 4. Free 5. Tonal 6. Abstract 7. Big Top 8. Kick Off 9. Main Title Nowhere To Go 10. The Escape 11. Question and Answer 12. Boo-Bah 13. One Four 14. Five Four 15. Haitian Ritual 16. Seamen’s Mission 17. Formation 18. Bongo Chant 19. Reza

Personnel: Late: Phil Seamen (drums) with 1.interview 2. Jimmy Witherspoon (vocal) and Dick Morrissey (tenor saxophone) Quartet 3. Harold McNair (alto saxophone) Quartet 4. Stan Tracey (vibraharp) Trio 5. & 6. Joe Harriott (alto saxophone) Quintet 7. Victor Feldman (vibraphone) Big Band 8. Jack Parnell Big Band 9. Dizzy Reece (trumpet) Quartet 10. Seamen and Reece 11. Drum solo 12. Stan Tracey (piano and vibraharp) Trio 13. & 14. Kenny Graham (tenor saxophone) and his Satellites 15. Kenny Graham (tenor saxophone)'s Afro-Cubists 16. Ronnie Scott (tenor saxophone) Orchestra 17. Joe Harriott Quintet 18. Kenny Graham's Afro Cubists 19. Tony Coe (clarinet) Quartet