JJ 03/71: Jazz at the Phoenix

Fifty years ago, Pete Gamble saw Mike Osborne, Frank Ricotti and SPEAR at the London club. First published in Jazz Journal March 1971

Louis Moholo, swinging his ears off

The Phoenix in Cavendish Square remains one of the pleasantest venues for jazz around the London scene. Despite dwindling audiences, the organisers still continue their admirable ‘all jazz’ policy, producing their regular Wed­nesday night sessions where they present all the top-flight contemporary musicians. Early visitors to the club this year have been: Mike Osborne, Frank Ricotti, and SPEAR.

Osborne led a quartet, completed by Mongezi Feza (tpt), Dave Holland (bs), and Louis Moholo (dm), which blew one of the finest evenings of free jazz that I have heard in a very long time. Indeed at times they reminded me of the early Coleman/Cherry group, about as fine a com­parison as one can possibly make. Initially Osborne seems to have been influenced by Eric Dolphy, but of late, this gig being no exception, his phrasing and upper register work owe far more to Ornette. However, he has undoubtedly acquired a style entirely his own, a great feature of which is his staggering ability to combine a violent, rough edge to his playing with a beautifully lyrical approach.

Feza’s spluttering, frenetic style complemented Osborne wonderfully, while the rhythm section of Holland and Moholo was near perfect. Holland’s stay with the Davis group has done him nothing but good, for his lines now seem to be so much stronger and authoritative, while his solos were supremely inventive. Moholo’s ‘back to the roots’ style enhanced the earthy feel the group evoked, and needless to say he swung his ears off. Here was a group with each member play­ing to the height of his powers; let’s hope the club can book them as a unit once again.

The following week, another quartet led by Frank Ricotti appeared at the club. Ricotti, backed by John Taylor (el-pno), Chris Lawrence (bs), and Trevor Tomkins (dm), played for the most part a sophisticated brand of jazz/rock which at first was reasonably pleasant, but began to pall as the evening progressed. Ricotti is undoubtedly a technically efficient musician, but his inability to swing and his lack of feeling remain a great disappointment to me. However, one redeeming factor was John Taylor, who once again proved that he has no peers in this country on the ‘switched on’ piano.

Early February it was SPEAR who really took the place by storm, and set everybody rocking along with their Kwela beat. The place was packed and the atmosphere was just right for SPEAR’s music, which is basic, enjoyable, and funky. Leader Dudu Pukwana is of course a boss alto man by anybody’s standards, and backed by the likes of Moholo and Feza, he was in fine solo voice. I’m not so sure that his vocal efforts particularly impressed me, but then you can’t have everything. What a shame that this will probably be the only time that they will appear at the club, for the group is to be renamed ‘Assegai’, and its musical policy is to be more ‘rock’ orientated, while there will also be a leaning towards West African music. Let’s hope this will not be another case of excellent musicians selling out. Knowing Pukwana’s high ideals, I very much doubt it.

As you now realise, jazz is very much alive at the Phoenix, so go along and help to keep the life-blood flowing.