This June marked the 2nd annual Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York City. Just as it was last year, 2012’s addition of the festival – which features performances from Stephanie Mills, Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello – is highlighted by extraordinary collaborations between legendary artists and young, forward-thinking performers (i.e. Savion Glover with McCoy Tyner). These unique pairings are a symbol of what is happening in jazz today; it’s getting younger, but it’s maintaining its sense of history. Unlike hip-hop and R&B music, who take from the past yet disrespect those who have come before them at time, this new crop of jazz musicians not only take the genre into new, exciting heights, but they outwardly respect those who inspired them. Such a display took a literal turn that night at the Highline Ballroom, when the eight piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (HBE), seven of them brothers, honored their past by playing alongside they father, former Sun Ra Arkestra lead trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Kelan Phil Cohran. HBE honed their craft all over the planet, combining the Chicago funk of their upbringing with the gritty hip-hop of their adolescence, evident in songs like “War” or their fantastic cover of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious.” Cohran’s multi-faced chops as a musician and band leader led to revolutionary recordings such as The Malcolm X Memorial, Spanish Suite and Armageddon. With joining influences coming together on one stage, the Highline was in for a historical occasion.
Chemistry is a key component for a group’s potential greatness. This is often why groups made up of family members have a track record of making innovative music, whether it’s the Jacksons, the Sylvers, or the Wilsons (The Beach Boys). HBE, as brothers, exude a syncing that’s been synonymous with other family groups: Their anticipation, harmonizing, charisma are all on a high level, and the presence of their father on stage with them only made things better, adding a sense of attention and reverence to the prodigious mixture. At 83 years old, Cohran’s mastery of trumpet, harp and kalimba are quite undeniable, especially while being backed by his progeny of brass wind brothers. The first five selections were all Cohran compositions, all brooding, dynamic and dark. During “Zincali,” HBE proudly played an Arabian Nights vibe, while Cohran’s kalimba added exciting colors, almost as if he was playing keyboards and congas all at once. His dexterity on harp during “Spin” was so deft it gave off the effect of an electric guitar. This prodigious display, however, was outdone when he stroked a violin bow across his kalimba, giving off a different kind of electricity.
Once Kelan Phil Cohran exited the stage, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble asserted themselves as the band the world has come to know them as. The Highline was full of concert goers sitting at tables and booths. It was clear after two bars that it should’ve been a standing room only occasion. Songs like War and First Class had that ominous bounce, courtesy mainly of LT Cohran’s sousaphone bass lines and the funky-ass break beats from Emmanuel Harrold. The dramatic trombone spurts from Sid & Clef Graves gave songs like “Planet of the Apes” and “Indigo” a punch of maturity, while the long, bending trumpet lines from Hudah, Yosh and Smoov made songs like “Carnival” celebratory.
HBE’s choreography was half Temptations, half HBC steppers. Smoov and Hudah also kicked a few flows on “Kryptonite” and “Party Start,” causing the sitting crowd to stand so they could learn and rock with nasty, bombastic grooves. By the time they kicked into their encore “Gypsy Spill,” it was clear that one mustn’t spend time on one’s behind while listening to their music. Even though their music makes you want to dance, it’s still soaking in a tradition that’s as rich and thick as the blood from which it derived from.
*Phil Cohran Solo
Planet of the Apes
*with Kelan Phil Cohran
Words by Matthew Allen
*Jill Newman Productions