"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
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 this occur.)
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
1. Attainment 08:55
2. Prince of Night 13:21
3. New Stand 10:10
4. House of Gold 10:37
5. Yogan Love 13:12
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