|| Charles Brackeen Quartet
Cat. No.: SHCD110
Charles Brackeen tenor saxophone, voice
Olu Dara cornet, voice, berimbau
Fred Hopkins bass, toy drum, voice
Andrew Cyrille drums, congas, voice
Dennis Gonzalez pao de chuva, voice
1. Attainment (Brackeen) 8:53
2. Prince of Night (Brackeen) 13:20
3. New Stand (Brackeen) 10:03
4. House of Gold (Brackeen) 10:29
5. Yogan Love (Brackeen) 13:08
Total time: 55:53
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"Attainment itself puts you in the mood, with a homily à la
Sun Ra before the saxophone takes the lead supported by growls from Olu Dara,
among the strongest of free trumpeters. The beauty of this and the other tracks
is that Brackeen keeps the most strident passages to a conversational level; on
the dirge House of Gold he grips from the start."
Ronald Atkins, The Guardian, March 11, 1989
"Brackeen's tenor style is reminiscent of both Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins;
he is, though, more restrained and conventional than either, and has clearly picked
his own path between models."
Graham Lock, The Wire, June 1989
Jazz and spirituality are old compadres. Of course, music had spiritual
elements back at the very genesis of our sentience.
These days, though, musicians often get lauded more for how many sessions they
play on than for the ascendancy of what they're playing. If you have a resume
that's as thick as a Dallas phone book you're a big deal, and if much of the work
is specious and facile, so be it.
On the other hand, we have Charles Brackeen. The lengthy discography jazz buffs
love so to natter about isn't present in the Brackeen scenario. The sessions he's
been on have been with Paul Motian, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Don Cherry, Billy
Higgins, and a few other individualistic jazzmen. Don't get me wrong, I've never
heard Brackeen adopt any high falutin' attitude toward players who take any session
they can get. But I have heard him call music his religion, and a man doesn't
blur the focus of his religion with a lot of mercenary commerce.
His most obvious tenor antecedents are Rollins and Coltrane. He also picked up
on Amerindian rhythms while living in his native Oklahoma. In New York, he performed
with West Indian musicians at outdoor community events in Brooklyn. In his own
right he is a compelling player and there you have much of what matters in a jazz
musician; good influences and individuality.
The Brackeen story began in White's Chapel, Oklahoma, but if you sought White's
Chapel on a map you'd not find it, because it is now called Eufaula, Oklahoma.
He lived on what he calls a "semi-farm" replete with cattle and pigs.
His aunt, a schoolteacher, taught him to play piano and violin, and since she
was a church-going woman she had him accompany her in duets at both Sunday and
weekday services. The young Brackeen took a liking to saxophones after hearing
them in the school band, so this benevolent educator bought him an alto. In the
sixth grade, Brackeen and another aunt moved to Paris, Texas. He was a little
young to get steeped in the big-toned tenor sound so many Texas saxists possessed,
but he did become aware of it. (One can hardly live in Texas without having
After three years in Texas, Brackeen moved to New York, joining up with his sister
and her husband who lived in the Bronx. Brackeen recollects that his brother-in-law
was "on the hip side" and had a record collection that included stuff
by Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Hampton Hawes, and
other luminaries. He and Brackeen spent many an hour listening to records together.
"Then later on I turned on to Clifford Brown and later still, to Miles Davis,"
remembers Brackeen. "Just came up the track like that and then I finally
heard Coltrane. He grabbed me after I had already been grabbed by Sonny Rollins.
This was both after Bird. I looked old enough to get a cabaret licence and was
able to go and play on some of the sessions that were happenin'. The cats were
so nice and sweet, I had to play when I walked into a club, they would
insist , and that was very encouraging to me. One good cat was Bobby Capers, alto
player, we got to know each other. Then there was another man called Royal Hall,
nobody knows too much about him but he taught me a lot."
"He knew all the cats," Brackeen says. "He knew Sonny Rollins,
and Sonny came to visit him a lot. He knew Percy Heath, we lived in the same project
where Percy was living, right behind Giant's Stadium, where Giant's Stadium originally
was. We would see him carrying his bass back and forth to gigs. I would hear this
tenor sax playing, and I'd really come to love the tenor, and each time I'd hear
this cat, it was like I'd get a bubble in my heart! Finally I met him, and it
turned out he had a lot of conservatory learning, and a lot of records.
He was a somewhat older cat than me. He'd start out by telling me what the cats
were doing, like Trane and Miles, and then he'd show me, on his piano.
We were like fanatics. Music was our worship."
In addition to record collections, Brackeen tapped the multiethnic musicality
of New York. He got acquainted with some West Indian musicians, and played with
them on various occasions.
"It was fun playing those gigs," he states. "It was also very interesting
because of the different rhythms, the different colors they'd come up with. Those
gigs were usually in Brooklyn, I'd moved to Manhattan by then. They were big community
happenings with tables of food, and between the smells of the food, and the rhythms,
and all the Panamanian people around it was really something! Sometimes
we'd play on the Staten Island ferry, too.
Accompanying Brackeen on the Brooklyn dates was a kindred spirit, trumpeter Ahmed
Abdullah. He'd met Brackeen in 1970 at a meeting of the Black Artists' Collective,
which Brackeen attended clad in a floor-length cape. ("He was obviously a
very different kind of cat," observes Ahmed. "Full of imagery!")
Ahmed recalled suggestions that he join forces with this saxist whose creativity
and committment paralleled his own. They formed the Melodic Art-tet with drummer
Roger Blank (who got the gigs for the group) and the late bassist Ronny Boykins.
The Art-tet showcased the compositions of Brackeen. They appeared less frequently
in night clubs than in lofts, and performed with some regularity at Sam Rivers'
studio in the Soho part of Greenwich Village. The group lasted from 1970-72.
"After the Melodic Art-tet, most of my gigs were with Edward Blackwell,"
says Brackeen. "We did a lot of duo things, and we did a few things with
(bassist) Mark Helias and Ahmed. Again, it was mostly in the lofts, and we also
did a few college things. Then I started rehearsing with Paul Motian, who had
known about me because Charlie Haden had told him about me. I also did some playing
with Don Cherry."
It sounds like Brackeen stayed busy and productive in New York, but these days
he says the interval was fraught with "dark periods".
"It was so dark I didn't know what was comin' or goin', sideways or crossways,"
offered the saxist. "Musically, it seemed New York was happenin', that was
the obvious way to think. But the Lord said it was time for a change in my life."
Brackeen and the Lord decided California was a good place to get away from these
dark periods, so in 1983 the saxist settled in Los Angeles. Most musicians go
to L.A. to tap into the often lucrative studio scene there, but not Brackeen.
"When I first got there I didn't play sessions or gigs that much," says
Brackeen. "I just tried to practice as much as I could. I wasn't familiar
with the town, and when I would go 'round to the places with my horn, there wasn't
nothin' happenin'! It was either very heavy funk, or blues, which is cool, but
it isn't what I wanted to play! So I didn't go out that much, I'd just stay home,
or go to the park, because music is my life. It's like I don't live in the world
around us I live in the music.
Right around Thanksgiving Day in 1987, the too-scant recorded legacy of this uncompromising
reedman was expanded by sessions conducted in Dallas that yielded two LPs with
Brackeen as leader, Worshippers Come Nigh and this effort, Attainment.
He had never before worked with bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Andrew Cyrille,
or cornetist Olu Dara. He arrived with several new compositions; the rest date
from his New York days.
There is a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now in which Martin Sheen and
another actor are staring raptly at a virtual tapestry of vegetation in a dark,
creepy jungle. A tiger leaps forth, but the audience sensed that there was power
behind that wall of weeds before the big feline was actually sighted. Forgive
me for imagism but Brackeen's playing evokes that scene to me. His playing is
compelling on the surface, like that omnious wall of vegetation, but it also seems
to bide a great, and profound, intensity.
This LP's first selection is "News Stand", one of the most recently
composed of the numbers here. No, its title was not suggested by any particular
news stand; Brackeen says that the fillips comprising its head came to him like
"news flashes". Certainly the tune is busy and bustling like some big
city newspaper store might be. (Brackeen may have been raised on a farm but he's
a quintessentially urban player to me; all the pictures his playing brings to
my head are city pictures.) Brackeen's solo is roiling, turbulent. Olu Dara's
cornet solo is trim and clear-cut by contrast. As for Fred Hopkins, he contributes
the first of the remarkable solos he will do on this record. It won't do to cull
their highlights, better just listen to them closely!
"Prince of Night" dates back from the New York interval and was in fact
one of the pieces performed frequently at Sam Rivers'. Its loping opening notes
harken (to this writer's ears, anyway) to Amerindian chants, and then it becomes
a straightfaced, no-nonsense blowing tune. Brackeen is a singularly fluid improviser
who starts a statement ordinarily enough and then evolves it into mutant,
surreal forms that connote the original take-off point. Olu Dara's solo here is
just great, with flow and whimsy.
The remarkable title track opens with drums, but the thumping you hear isn't Andrew
Cyrille's bass drum, but a toy marching drum. Other colors are provided by berimbau
and pao de chuva (the latter is a Brazilian shaker within which are seashell
fragments and pebbles). You'll notice that Fred Hopkins achieves an unusual, almost
abrasive bass sound. He's fretting normally enough with his left hand but he's
striking the strings with a drumstick in his right. As said, it's a mite abrasive,
but it's entirely within the context of this outstanding, stirring musical endeavor.
Far too many jazz works these days are not "compositions" at all but
merely hooks from which depend solos unheightened by their uninspired setting.
By contrast," Attainment" is a cohesive, gratifyingly complete set of
musical pictures. It has diversity within itself, as well; introduction, improvisation,
chant, denouement, and ending. Brackeen and Olo play off each other entrancingly
here; Brakeen, feisty and fervid, Dara languid, making smart use of spaces.
"House of Gold", by the trio without Dara, is a magnificent tour
de force for Brackeen.
"Yogan Love"... runs the gamut of sax sounds from lazy to brittle, from
subtle to downright lurid. Pay close attention to the no-holes framework Hopkins
and Cyrille build here.
After the Dallas sessions, Brackeen returned to California. Los Angeles is supposedly
a swell town for musicians, but it still has no abundance of opportunities for
Brackeen to perform his significant musical art. I will resist a temptation here
to berate the listening public for missing out on music like his, as they mistake
glossy showbiz types for musicians, and support song and dance acts who
are popular, rather than aural artists who have something to say
Well, as the old blues song says, don't start me talkin'. You'd do better to listen,
and listen closely to the music of Charles Brackeen.
Dallas, TX 1/88