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Artist: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Album: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: May. 27, 2009


Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - "Rabbit Hop" (Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)


Some are born to greatness, some have it thrust upon them. And sometime the two are one; just ask the seven or eight horn-wielding siblings who, with a non-blood brother, comprise the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. They were born the sons of Kelan Phil Cohran, a multi-instrumentalist and bandleader who worked with Sun Ra, led the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, and schooled Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire in the mysteries of the kalimba. Cohran handed each of his kids an instrument, woke them up at 6 AM, and made them participate in a few hours of pre-school musical practice. It probably didn’t seem too great at the time, but the training and brotherhood stuck.

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble isn’t their first band together; aside from the youthful family practice band, some of the siblings have played in the hip-hop groups GWC (Gangsters With A Curfew) and Wolf Pak. Late in the 1990s, they picked their brass back up and started playing for tips on Chicago’s streets. I recall happening upon them years ago playing on State Street near the former Marshall Fields department store and quite enjoying them.

Like New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which also took a street-level phenomenon on the road, the Hypnotic Ensemble has abandoned local thoroughfares to tour the world (they were signed to Honest Jon’s after they were overheard playing on a corner near the label’s London office), and contributed to projects involving Eryka Badu, Mos Def and Tony Allen.

The last association is the most pertinent when grasping the band’s sound. They might be members of the hip-hop generation, but the old schooling wins out when they play. The paternal heritage is hard to escape; they open the record with one of Phil Cohran’s songs, a swaggering party chant called “Alyo,” and his years of drilling show in the tightness of their ensemble. They may be equipped with jazz band instrumentation, but the tunes they write are steeped in ’70s soul values of tunefulness and clarity. Solos are short, to the point, and directly reference the song’s melody. Their massed horn voicings also bring to mind Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. The latter influence is especially evident on “Sankofa,” which they previously contributed to a remix project that honored Fela drummer Tony Allen, and he returns the favor by playing drums on a few tracks.

That’s not the only re-recording present. The Ensemble has several self-released records under their belt, and much of this album’s material has shown up elsewhere in their discography. Which probably works to their benefit – they got to cherry-pick their best material and redo it at the end of a European tour when they were especially in synch. The highlights include “Balicki Bone” (a midtempo tune with a hint of Funkadelic seasoning in the groove), the celestial trumpet harmonies of “Jupiter,” and a frantic treatment of labelmate Moondog’s “Rabbit Hop.” But there isn’t a dog in the bunch. The record flows easily, then ends on a wiggy note with a synth-peppered remix of the Moondog cover that makes one wonder where the Ensemble might go if they really get turned loose in a studio.

By Bill Meyer

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