Charles Brackeen and Mtume, R.I.P.

Charles Brackeen was a mysterious figure. I spoke to him on the phone briefly when assembling the extensive essay that accompanies the Paul Motian ECM box set. It was an enjoyable conversation, and, since I suspected this would end up being one of the few Charles Brackeen interviews, I included almost all the quotable bits in the liner notes. The relevant passage:

After the Jarrett group disbanded, Motian tried leading his first working band, a trio with saxophone and bass.  Charles Brackeen was an interesting choice.  Like Carlos Ward, he comes from the network of post-Ornette horn players: the 1968 Brackeen album Rhythm X with Cherry, Haden and Blackwell is a superb document of the Coleman school.  On Dance, the Coleman connection is furthered by the presence of David Izenzon, a bassist whose most familiar work is in the Ornette trio with Charles Moffett.  It’s a collection of important, idiosyncratic musicians who (apart from Motian) lack extensive discographies — indeed, Dance is not just Izenzon’s only album from the 70‘s but his final commercial recording.  

Brackeen is from Oklahoma, and he shares something of that Southwestern cry that characterized Dewey Redman.  Motian loved playing with Redman with Jarrett, so hiring Brackeen was a logical consequent.  Brackeen remembers playing with this trio as, “A fantastic experience.  We rehearsed at my studio in New York or on tour in Europe.  The music was accurate, simple, enjoyable, and interesting.  Paul was very experienced and was a spectacular arranger.  There were no questions.”  

During this time Brackeen was also becoming legendary for his street performances.  “That was an important part of my artistic expression.  I would play for anybody and everybody, and they called me the man who talked through the horn. I found some mechanical monkey drummers at Christmastime. First I made a costume and a hat for myself, and then I would dress the monkeys the way I was dressed, like a uniform.  

“People would ask, ‘What are you paying your band?’ or, ‘What kind of batteries are you using?’  It opened the history up.   At first I was playing standards like ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Sunny Side of the Street,’ and ‘Summertime.’ But with the monkeys it was better to make up songs.  The police looked the other way, but it was against the law.  I worried sometimes about how much money I made. It was a lot! Fifteen years I did that!  They didn’t have drum machines yet, but the rappers later seemed to understand what I was doing. Nobody copied me while I was there, yet two years after I left New York they came out with rap.” 

From the opening notes of “Waltz Song,” it is easy to imagine not just Brackeen but the whole trio performing this cheerfully disorganized music on a street corner somewhere.   The tracks with soprano, “Waltz Song,” “Kalypso,” “Asia,” and “Lullaby,” are enigmatic character studies, while the tenor features, “Dance” and “Prelude,” let loose with full-throttle blowing.  Motian seems to be having fun picking non-sequitur titles:  There’s no waltz anywhere, and “Kalypso” has a taste of an AACM-style march. In the 60’s, Izenzon was often paired with other bassists — usually, he was the one with the bow — and “Lullaby” gives him a chance to reference those years via an overdub.

The engineer for Dance and the rest of the box is Martin Wieland, whom Eicher praises highly.  “He was an assistant engineer to Kurt Rapp at our very first session with Mal Waldron, Free at Last. He had just finished at the conservatory in Dusseldorf where he studied to be a sound engineer.  So, like myself, he was a beginner in the field and we used the chance to learn in every session.  He was also an excellent engineer for live recordings including The Köln Concert, almost a specialist in changing multi-track or two-track tapes during live concerts, getting there just when they are just about to run out. In the 80’s he got an offer from a radio station in a higher position and moved away from recording.  I really liked to work with him. He was one of the three important engineers who helped set the direction at ECM, along with Jan Erik Kongshaug and Tony May.”

Dance is distinctive, but Le Voyage is better.  From the first notes the group sounds more confident.  If Izenzon was connected to Ornette, J. F. Jenny-Clark was connected to Don Cherry, appearing on several of the trumpeter’s albums in the 60’s. During the 70’s, Jenny-Clark had become a major force in European jazz:  the year before Le Voyage, he had appeared on Enrico Rava’s wonderful ECM record Quartet.  A natural musician, Jenny-Clark is related to Haden in spirit and harmonic angle although the tone and phrasing comes more from the Gary Peacock school.  (According to Brackeen, Arild Andersen also played in the trio on tour.)

During Brackeen’s soprano improvisation on “Folk Song for Rosie,” Motian moves from free tempo to banging out his canonical crude swing on trashy China cymbal.  Again, not every drummer commands both worlds as convincingly as Motian.

The highlight of the album is Brackeen’s fervent, multi-hued unaccompanied tenor cadenza on “Abacus,” which seems to be the dead intersection of Albert Ayler and Dewey Redman.  There’s really far too little of Brackeen on record.  

Few other jazz bassists would attempt the tricky melody of “Cabala” with a bow.   Later on in the track, the premiere recording of “Drum Music” is stated rather slowly, especially if you know it as the raging sign-off theme concluding countless later Motian sets at the Village Vanguard.  “Drum Music” is notated in 5/4. That doesn’t really seem to matter for the free phrasing, but Paul said it was inspired by “Five,” the abstract Bill Evans tune recorded on New Jazz Conceptions.  

Only on “The Sunflower” does Brackeen’s tenor finally intertwine with Clark and Motian’s shape-shifting time.  With this kind of music, it is incorrect to say there is a Brackeen “solo”:  once the head is over, there is a trio of equals.  Everyone’s phrases follow naturally, and Motian even graces us with a little bit of clunky swing.  The title track returns to soprano and a more spacey ambience, perfect for Martin Wieland to capture every nuance.  Le Voyage should be better known: it’s surely one of the best jazz albums of 1979.

As I write above, Rhythm X is pure Ornette-school, not least because of the band. In the ’80s Brackeen put a few releases on Silkheart. Worshippers Come Nigh with Olu Dara, Fred Hopkins, and Andrew Cyrille is a good listen. Another great band! The style is no longer purely in the vein of Ornette, but also concerned with the kind of gritty post-Coltrane spiritual and modal concepts next door to Pharoah Sanders or David Murray.

It’s possible that the two Motian albums remain Charles Brackeen’s finest studio performances.

flyer courtesy Hyland Harris

Mtume had an extraordinary life in this music. From the forthcoming Billy Hart memoir:

Jimmy Heath’s son was Mtume, so named by Maulana Karenga of the US Organization, an important political group connected to the social ferment of the times. The American version of the holiday Kwanzaa was Karenga’s idea.  

Mtume played congas with Gary Bartz, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis. He also wrote the hit songs “Juicy Fruit,” which was successful with his own group and later sampled by Biggie Smalls, and “The Closer I Get to You,” which was recorded by Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, and Beyoncé.  I’m on Mtume’s album Alkebu-Lan: Land Of The Blacks, which was recorded live at the East, a cultural center in Brooklyn that only allowed black people onstage and in the audience.  When I played at East with Herbie Hancock, they didn’t allow Herbie’s white wife to attend.

Mtume is a Swahili name. Most Afro-Americans go by a name originally given to them by a slave master. If you take an African name, it is a way to reject the status quo and reclaim your heritage. 

Tootie Heath was Mtume’s uncle, and Mtume named Tootie “Kuumba,” Buster Williams “Mchezaji,” and Herbie Hancock “Mwandishi” on a 1969 record date, Kawaida

As the final version of the Herbie Hancock sextet came together, everyone took a name, mostly assigned by Mtume. 

All these names mean something, or even several things. 

Herbie Hancock — Mwandishi — Composer.
Eddie Henderson — Mganga — Doctor.
Bennie Maupin — Mwile — Body of Good Health.
Julian Priester — Pepo Moto — Spirit Child.
Buster Williams — Mchezaji — The Player.
Billy Hart — Jabali — Moral Strength. 

My name, Jabali, has stayed with me ever since this era.

According to Lord, Mtume’s jazz discography includes 114 sessions. The best known are from the several years of work with Miles Davis, but he recorded from everyone from Harold Land and Sonny Rollins to Ramsey Lewis and Roy Ayers.

Listing ten LP titles featuring Mtume in the ’70s certainly evoke an era:

Gato Barbieri Under Fire
Pharoah Sanders Wisdom Through Music
Lonnie Liston Smith And The Cosmic Echoes Astral Traveling
Abbey Lincoln People In Me
Carlos Garnett Black Love
Azar Lawrence Bridge Into The New Age
Gary Bartz Music is My Sanctuary
Reggie Lucas Survival Themes
Hubert Eaves Esoteric Funk
Harry Whitaker Black Renaissance – Body, Mind And Spirit

Mtume’s important career as a hit songwriter is beyond DTM’s purview, but a 2017 interview with the Breakfast Club is a worthy watch. A few years ago Mtume got back on the radar of jazz fans thanks to a substantial debate with Stanley Crouch, seen many times on YouTube.