Mike Osbourne/Stan Tracey
Air On A Shoestring
Back To Berks
Mike Osbourne (alto saxophone)
Stan Tracey (piano)
Back To Berks recorded live at South Hill Park, Bracknell on 26 November 1976 by Doug Gleave.
Edited by Keith Beal.
Cover design and layout by Niklaus Troxler.
Produced by Keith Beal, Mike Osbourne and Stan Tracey.
Liner Notes by Steve Lake.
Stan Tracey, 1973: "During the bebop era I went heavily into the harmonic side of things, but now I'm trying to evolve a completely different approach." With this recording, Stan Tracey finds it.
There's no complacency of course. Tracey has never stood still musically before - and is not about to start, but Tandem, the second duo album to emerge from the Tracey/Osbourne duo, feels like Stan's definitive statement in the free-music-with-rhythm bag that's exclusively his own. It ties up years of pioneering experimentalism that stretches nack, perhaps, to the celebrated New Departures Quartet of the early 1960's, but has blossomed most forcefully since our opening quote with the Tentacles big band, the Stan Tracey octet, the quartet called Open Circle (with Trevor Watts and John Stevens), two more quartets (one with Art Themen, one with Mike Osbourne), solo performances, a duo with Keith Tippett... the list goes on.
The duo is one of the most demanding perfomance situations in jazz which is why, no doubt, there have been so few in the music's history. In 1976, for example, a few excellent duo recordings filtered on to the market: Anthony Braxton with Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins with Rashied Ali, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. But for thrills and spills nobody got close to Stan and Ossie at the Bracknell Festival on a hot afternoon in July.
Up against the madness of American and Continental jazz festivals Bracknell had seemed, initially, a tranquil, even sedate affair. Musicians and their families picknicked outside the main marquee, cocking lazy ears to the sound of Ralph Towner's delicate twelve-string arpeggios. It was all very pleasant.
Ralph got himself a sleepy encore, and the duo was introduced. Tracey stared at the keyboard briefly as if looking for a point from which to launch his attack. The three note figure which introduces the improvisation called Ballad Forms (the appelation added after the event of course) sounded in the air like a clarion call or something that a hipper Beethoven would have used as the intro to the ninth. Whatever, the hum of casual chatter that had marred Towner's set ceased immediately and Osbourne's lyrically urgent answering phrase seemed to suck a nation's music critics clean out of the beer tent. It was obvious that something special was up.
I've listened to Ballad Forms (such a modest title) perhaps thirty times thus far and every time it sounds completely fresh. Osbourne and Tracey seem able to weld together completely contradictory emotions with an ease that leaves the listener breathless. Sometimes the logic of it all can seem almost as scary as, reflex-quick, Stan and Mike move together from ominous rumblings to a carefree springtime jaunt.
Musical images spin dizzily through the mind. Afrcan drum choirs; a Debussy sonata for violin and piano (perhaps not so far out when one recalls that mike spent his early career bowing away in a Hereford school orchestra); North American Indian music, maybe, where the central rhythm, rarely stated, undulates and oscillates, drone-like through the performance.
Sometimes, as in the final haunting moments, it's just the late-night down home blues as Osbourne abstracts a phrase from Mingus' tribute to Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and winds up one of the most comprehensive performances in jazz - British or otherwise - on a note of melancholy. And the spontaneous enthusiasm of the Bracknell crowd that erupts at the conclusion says more for the communicative power of the piece than any number of words after the event. Air On A Shoestring was the Bracknell encore, a piece which once again slings together a bunch of disparate moods and has them all make sense. Tracey, who has an ear for great rhythm sections in his quartets (hence Bryan Spring and Dave Green) often soiunds as though he scarcely needs them. Here he is a pianist, percussionist and bassist combined - dissonant and battering - with Osbourne, a whole, demented reed section, temporarily abandoning thoughtfulness for intensity. And yet, by the end of the piece, it has indeed become an air, simple and romantic as you like.
Back To Berks is a virtuoso performance, not merely virtuoso piano or virtuoso alto, but virtuoso togetherness, a whole new category. For this kind of empathy is not just unusual in jazz, free music, or anything else, but verges on the impossible. Tandem is a record to be treasured.