Occasionally one has the ambiguous pleasure of realising that something you felt was at least fairly justifiable is regarded in other quarters as an outright myth – or, to be precise, ‘one of the most consistently perpetuated falsehoods of postwar cultural history’, which is going some when you’re talking about the minority pursuit known as British jazz. The falsehood in question, identified by a very respectable fellow contributor to august organ The Wire, is the idea that in the 1960s ‘UK jazz entered a golden age in which British musicians found a voice that was somehow distinctly British.’ The release that prompted the observation was RPM 3CD Turtle Records: Pioneering British Jazz 1970-1971, and the point being made was that the music it re-releases wasn’t really pioneering anything. Rather, the albums contained in the set were pretty much in line with earlier US sounds – John Taylor’s Pause, and Think Again sounding mostly like mid-1960s Blue Note, and Mike Osborne’s Outback recalling the so-called New Thing, but nearly a decade after the fact. Howard Riley’s Flight, the most out date and thus in its own Little Theatre-ish way the most orthodox when hindsight is employed, is given a pass.
In fairness, Pause, and Think Again is indeed redolent of the best mid period Blue Notes, with both the arrangements and the self-taught Taylor’s vamping on numbers like ‘Pause’ having a very strong flavour of Maiden Voyage-era Hancock. That said, it also contains wilder elements such as the tumultuous ‘Awakening/Eye to Eye’, which takes off in a much freer direction, and the delicate closer, ‘Interlude/Soft Winds’, which is graced by a typically ethereal vocal from the inimitable Norma Winstone. It is a beautiful set throughout, one of the cleanest and most focussed sessions in the style – there is a good reason why it has long been a revered and sought after title among collectors of British jazz, so this is a very welcome reissue.
Outback and Flight are different kettles of fish entirely. Flight is a wholly open and exploratory session, a spirited and thoughtful conversation between Riley, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley whose rather dark palette in places suddenly coalesces into passages of aching lyricism, as in ‘Two Ballads: For Lesley/For Sue’. But of the three recordings, Outback is the real gem – though it is less a diamond, more a heavy uncut chunk of some dark and unknown mineral: a raggedly glittering geode of a set, fractured by Osborne’s keening alto, tumbled and knocked by Harry Miller and Louis Moholo.
Organised around a South African core of Miller, Moholo and Chris McGregor, whose intensity is offset by Harry Beckett, it was long the one of the only places on record to hear McGregor in a small group setting after the mould of the Blue Notes – with Miller replacing Dyani, there’s a sense in which Beckett has the Mongezi Feza role, with Osborne in for Pukwana. From the point of view of tracing the development of that unique group of South African masters, it is a valuable stepping stone between Very Urgent and the first Brotherhood of Breath recordings, and is accordingly dramatic.
That aspect is fascinating, but in truth this is Osborne’s party – tense, searching, garrulous and somewhat freaky, Outback is a great place to hear him stretch out in less austere conditions than those of the Trio dates with Moholo and Miller. Cushioned and channelled by McGregor, and intelligently supported by the ever-reliable Beckett, Outback is one of his most affecting and impressive recordings.
The cataract of Caribbean, African and British sentiments means that the deep sensibilities of a date like this in fact owe little but a formal hat-tip to American music (and I’d venture the same is true of a lot of the best and most typically British UK jazz). Deep roots of feeling and experience are being tapped, and Osborne’s was one of the few British voices that could truly speak in the tongues that could translate them freely. To return to our earlier theme, the New Thing warmed over this is not: all the messages are different, and the formal language is wholly recoded. If one is looking for a distinctly British sound, one could hardly do better than to start right here.