Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

I forget where I first heard of the formerly-based-in-Chicago band, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, but I bought their CD recently1. The disc arrived a day or so before this New Yorker review by Sasha Frere-Jones, which begins:

The first time I encountered the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, I was walking through the Times Square subway station toward the No. 1 train. It was hard to miss the sound of eight men playing brass instruments—two trombones, four trumpets, one sousaphone, and a euphonium—while a ninth man added drums. The men stood side by side, swaying, looking a bit like James Brown’s Famous Flames. As I listened, the sousaphone player locked in with the drummer, the trombones played what sounded like a bass line, and the rest of the horns circled and echoed the main motif. Certain genres sprang to mind—a New Orleans second-line band, say, or big-band jazz—but the music wasn’t jazz, exactly. The songs set small, compact melodies against a steady hip-hop beat, and everyone played simultaneously and continuously. The band had eliminated one of the dreary commonplaces of jazz, that class-recital rhythm of soloing—you go, I go, and so on, until the main melody returns.

Several months later, I saw the band again, in front of the Whole Foods in Union Square. As I snapped a few photographs, mostly to remind myself to figure out who they were, one of the trombone players walked up to me. “You can’t take a picture unless you buy a CD,” he said, smiling. He held out three albums in slimline cases, each titled “Hypnotic Brass Ensemble” and featuring an identical black-and-white photograph of the band, beneath a field of color—one red, one orange, and one green. I bought all three (ten bucks apiece), and the trombone player slapped me on the back. “Support live music, people,” he called out, stepping in line with his bandmates. “Bring back real music before it’s too late.”

With the exception of the drummer, Gabriel Wallace, the members of Hypnotic are all brothers. Their father is the jazz trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran, who was a leading figure in Chicago’s black avant-garde-jazz community in the fifties and sixties, and was a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra. In the spring of 1965, Cohran and about forty other musicians gathered in his living room on Chicago’s South Side to form the A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a nonprofit that supports black artistic expression in local communities. “We had lived through the greatest decline of professional musicians in Chicago and wanted to do something about it,” Cohran says. Some of the best-known members of the A.A.C.M. include the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and the Pharaohs, whose members eventually formed Earth, Wind, and Fire.

[Click to continue reading Serendipity: Musical Events: The New Yorker]

Even better. The album is quite good. If I wasn’t lazy and pressed for time, I might have elaborated on the thought that their sound is jazz music you could dance to. Mr. Frere-Jones concurs, albeit more eloquently:

The music that Hypnotic plays might best be described as highly composed instrumental hip-hop. If it is jazz, it’s closer in spirit to jazz from a hundred years ago: accomplished and energetic music parcelled out in short songs designed for dancing. It stays in key for long stretches, and moves in easy-to-follow periods. In a typical Hypnotic song, the shifts in key and the emergence of themes happen against a sound of massed horn parts that provide a sense of solidity. The music stays rooted to the cycle of the beat and the riff, and the players don’t leave the center behind to leap around as they might in hard bop or free jazz. Unlike the musicians in the avant-garde community that Hypnotic grew up in, these players have no interest in dissonance or “out” passages of squeaking and skronking. They keep their compositions lean and their harmonies broad and varied.

  1. oh, I remember now, Uncut had a piece about Honest Jon’s records and Damon Albarn. I blogged about it here []

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