Mike Osborne

Gifted jazz saxophonist

Tuesday 25 September 2007 00:00

Michael Evans Osborne, saxophonist: born Hereford 28 September 1941; married; died Hereford 19 September 2007.

With his ripping articulation and searing sound, Mike Osborne was one of the most original and gifted of British alto saxophone players. He epitomised the British jazz musicians who finally emerged in the Sixties to stand toe-to-toe with their American counterparts.

Original? Yes, for although as a teenager Osborne absorbed the work of the hottest American players, Jackie McLean and Phil Woods, they fell into the background as he forged his own style and became an icon in his own right. Filled with passion like Woods and McLean, Osborne differed from them in the manner that he moved easily between conventional jazz and the outer reaches of the far-out.

It was in the early Sixties that I was invited by a member of the staff to go to Padgate College near Warrington to hear a group of unknown teenagers that was to play a Saturday afternoon concert. I testily declined, but the man on the phone was persistent and said that this was going to be something remarkable, so in the end I went.

I was stunned by what I heard that day. This wonderful music from Mike Westbrook's young band had come out of nowhere. The names that I learned then and would remember for the rest of my life included Mike Osborne, the saxophonist John Surman, the trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and the bandleader and pianist Mike Westbrook. They all went on to become internationally famous and several of the other youngsters became national figures.

These were no city boys. They were a rural lot. John Surman came from Tavistock in Devon, Mike Westbrook organised his first band in Plymouth and Mike Osborne was born and raised in Hereford. His gifts were obvious when he played the violin in his school orchestra at Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire and he also played the piano there, but when he left to go to the Guildhall School of Music in London it was to study the clarinet.

Westbrook reformed what was now known as the Mike Westbrook Concert Band in London. After Osborne had sat in with it a couple of times, he was asked to join in 1959, and became one of the two professional musicians in the band. He left the band in 1963 but returned in 1967 and played for Westbrook again until 1971. Like so many musicians of his kind, his many jobs overlapped.

Westbrook was part of a two-band revolution in British jazz that produced, for the first time, fresh, vivid and original music that used strong elements of up-market rock. Osborne also worked in the other band, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra. But he was so much in demand among his fellow musicians that it's hard now to keep track of just whose bands he did play with. He made a substantial impact with the South African pianist Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath (1961-75) and throughout that period led his own trios. By now his incandescent playing was drawing influence from the then avant-garde player Ornette Coleman and from McGregor's fellow South African musicians.

Osborne's best trio manifestation was perhaps with the bassist Harry Miller, a colleague from the original Westbrook band, and the drummer Louis Moholo. He co-led a variety of bands with Surman during 1968 and 1969 and played in the Humphrey Lyttelton band from time to time. During the Seventies Osborne worked often with Stan Tracey in a duo called Tandem and with Harry Miller's Isipingo. These were small groups, but Osborne graced other big bands led by John Warren and by Kenny Wheeler.

Osborne, the tenorist Alan Skidmore and Surman rose to be considered the greatest saxophone players of their time and when in 1973 they formed their trio SOS (Surman-Osborne-Skidmore), it was natural that it should be one of the most highly charged bands of the day. The multi-instrumentalist Surman programmed synthesiser parts in advance and the saxophones were added in concert. SOS recorded an album (SOS, 1975) and worked for the BBC on radio and television.

They travelled to Paris in 1974 for a season at the Paris Opera, playing music written by Surman and Skidmore for Sablier Prison, a ballet by the dancer Carolyn Carson.

But by now, schizophrenic illness was causing Osborne difficulties and, on his return home, he was committed to a hospital in south London. On his discharge he moved to Norfolk, but returned eventually to Hereford. His career ended in 1982; although he played among friends on a couple of occasions some 10 years later, he never worked in public again. He remained at home in Hereford and then in care until his death from lung cancer.

During his comparatively brief career Osborne made innumerable broadcasts and recordings and he won first place as best altoist in the Melody Maker polls every year between 1969 and 1973. Recent reissues of some of his albums have introduced his music to a new generation.

Steve Voce

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