From the Dorseys to the Davies', brother acts translates well to the stage, but few have a bond like the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The nine-piece, Chicago-based band boasts eight horn-playing sons of jazzman Kelan Phil Cohran. They, along with their father, will perform at the Exchange tomorrow, February 23.
“We have been a group since we were born,” says lead trumpeter Jafar Baji Graves, emailing from Russia, where the group is on tour. The brothers, who are all between the ages of 28 and 35, have three mothers between them but share one father. “He is our number one fan. He always told us as long as we stick together…that we would create the music of our time.”
Cohran is a vital contributor to the evolution of jazz and R&B. He played trumpet with the late great Sun Ra in the 1950s before helping to form the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago in the mid-'60s. “It keeps us grounded in our true mission,” says Graves. “Music is medicine and we got the prescription. Study our father and his teachings and you will see that our music and lives are a product of his training.”
Their sound is a reflection of every major brass ensemble to come before them. From the party sounds of New Orleans street bands to the drumline precision of college marching bands to the wide-open interplay of Salvation Army bands, their intricate horn harmonies blend tightly over a hard-driving drum kit. “I've heard things like 'hip hop jazz', 'jazz rave' and 'world music' but our sound is the name, hypnotic, because it mixes and crosses over genres and styles, it draws you in. And we can keep you there until we're ready to let you go.”
The band got their start busking in Chicago in the mid '90s but it wasn't until a decade later that things took off, through former Blur frontman and British world music ambassador Damon Albarn, who brought Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on tour. From there they appeared with Albarn's other project, Gorillaz, providing accompaniment to guests like Mos Def and Snoop Dogg. Since that breakthrough, they have been criss-crossing the globe non-stop.
“Too much family can be a bad thing sometimes,” Graves continues. “Family knows better than anyone how to get under your skin. Besides that, it's great to have people you trust 100% to travel with. In the beginning it was hard. There was a lot of arguing. But now that we have been all over the world with each other living in planes, trains and automobiles for the last six years, we have settled down and learned how to move better as a unit. It's peaches and cream now.”