Cohran, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Mesmerize at Highline Ballroom
Early in his career, Chicago multi-instrumentalist Kelan Philip Cohran severed a pair of pivotal musical ties. Despite a fruitful stint with Sun Ra—one can hear his cornet and violin uke on LPs like Interstellar Low Ways, Fate In A Pleasant Mood, Holiday For Soul Dance and Angels And Demons At Play—Cohran opted to stay in the Windy City when the Arkestra blew east in 1961. And after co-founding the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965, the man of many axes distanced himself from the organization, citing a dissonance between its members’ desires to play “out” and his to rock in rhythm. In any event, Cohran’s career in music stayed out of the spotlight for the next four-plus decades.
In that time, Cohran taught music in schools and prisons, opened a performance space called the Affro Arts Theater and worked with his Artistic Heritage Ensemble, an imaginative, genre-blind group that included future Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey. But he took his work home with him, too, and woke his children at 5 a.m. for music lessons. Though unappreciated at the time, those sleepless mornings were hard to shake, and in 1999, seven of his 15 sons formed the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a band that started out busking but has since toured worldwide. Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s), an album that once again places the brothers under the direction of their father, arrived earlier this month with little fanfare. But like all of Cohran’s projects, power is not dependent on visibility, as evidenced by its New York release event at the Highline Ballroom on June 18.
To the left of his sons—four trumpeters, two trombonists and a sousaphonist—and trap drummer Emanuel Harrold, Cohran sat surrounded by instruments and amplifiers, like a child who had emptied his toy chest. Opening with the swiftly chugging “Aspara,” a composition dating back to 1967, Cohran and his cohorts established a general formula for the first half of the show: The drums and sousaphone set up a simple groove, the trombones affixed a repeating figure on top of that, and then the trumpets spiraled off into sly, soaring melodies. Trumpeter Tarik “Smoov” Graves, trombonist Seba “Clef” Graves and Cohran alternated solos. On “Aspara,” Cohran riffed a little on cornet and Frankiphone—an amplified thumb piano he named after his mother, Frankie—but he was too low in the mix to be heard.
Following the conclusion of the first piece, the band of brothers stepped aside to let Cohran venture out musically. Over a backing track of New Age-inspired keyboard tones, Cohran improvised on harp. The moment was appealingly bewildering; Cohran played sweeping washes of notes devoid of discernable melodic content, favoring rhythm over anything singable or repeatable.
When the band returned, further album tracks materialized. “Zincali,” a gorgeous dirge in 7/4 time, saw Cohran in a trance, switching from cornet to Frankiphone to violin uke to cornet again. His work on the psychedelic Frankiphone culminated in a mesmerizing one-note riff. Just like on the LP, “Spin” transitioned from a solo harp investigation into a full-on funk workout with Cohran’s jangly, enigmatic strings leading the way.
Shortly after “Spin,” Cohran left the stage to let the Hypnotics knock out a set on their own, and the energy of the night changed immediately. Where Cohran’s compositions were mostly slow and full of wonder, Hypnotic Brass songs like “War” and “Planet Of The Apes” were big and boisterous; some pieces featured rapping and synchronized dances moves. While this portion of the night was unquestionably more fun, the mystery, peace and subtle strangeness of the first half were sorely missing. And yet, what could make a musician happier than to see his children go their own way?