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Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

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Artist: Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Album: Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Jun. 4, 2012

Philip Cohran may be the most important jazz musician in Chicago that nobody talks about. (Or at least no one used to talk about — in researching this review, did I find a handful of recent articles about Cohran.) He played trumpet, zither and other instruments with Sun Ra while the representative from Saturn was based in Chicago. The AACM was founded in his living room. He recorded one studio album, On the Beach, in the 1960s with his band the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, a group which included Pete Cosey and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. It’s a certifiable masterpiece, a seamless blending of African rhythms, funky beats, soul horn charts, Sun Ra-inspired counterpoint, and the best side of post-AACM free jazz, with Cohran at the center on the Frankophone (an amplified mbira) and the violin uke (a kind of bowed zither). The good folks at Katalyst have reissued that along with a handful of other equally stupendous late-’60s live recordings. After that, Cohran seems to have stopped recording and, like many of the great under-recorded jazzmen (Horace Tapscott is a prime example), devoted his life to music education and community building. But his music was largely forgotten — when Downbeat magazine interviewed him in 1984, he quipped “I didn’t even think they knew my name.”

While doing that, he had kids. Lots of kids. Music was a central part of their childhood, with Cohran getting them up at 6 a.m., before school, to drill them, imparting on them the work ethic he inherited from Sun Ra. So it shouldn’t be any real surprise when eight of them got together to form a brass band, fusing their love of hip hop with the skills that their father taught them. They even included a composition of his on their first album.

What is surprising, though, is that they managed to convince him to return to the recording studio at age 85 to record an album of new material. I’m sure that Cohran had continued to write and perform music over the intervening four decades, but none of it has really made it out of Chicago. (There is an album of his from 1993, a tribute to Sun Ra called African Skies which only recently saw the light of day, which I have yet to hear.)

Listening to Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, I’m struck how little has changed in Cohran’s writing style; all of these compositions sound like updates of his pieces with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Central to almost every track here is some kind of dark, Ethiopiques-esque groove in the sousaphone, over which the rest of the band spin out long melodies which weave into joyous brass tapestries. For the first few tracks, he lets his sons speak for themselves: “Cuernavaca” is a funkified mariachi tune, complete with that particular piercing brass tone and warbly vibrato; “Stateville” is more urgent, pseudo-spy-jazz, centered on a deep, syncopated groove in the drums. The younger Cohrans are no lightweights, and each of them shows off some impressive chops and subtle sense of line. And they seem to have fully incorporated the heavy funk at the center of so much early ’90s hip hop into their sound, though nothing here has the propulsive power of the first Hypnotic Brass Ensemble album.

Things really go nuts once Cohran the father pulls out his Frankophone. He sneaks into the middle of “Aspara,” rising out of the rhythm section and lending a truly delirious undertone to the song. His violin uke channels the sound of the harp and the kora while forming the backbone of “Spin,” which may be the funkiest thing on the record. Its weird intonation distorts everything else that happens in the song, sending the song even closer to the edge. “Ancestral,” a free-floating, percussion-less vamp, features endless, primordial melodic lines, with the violin uke subtly unsettling things from the background. And “Zincali” expands on those ideas, allowing space for pretty much every member of the group to take a solo, with the sousaphone solo being particularly delightful.

I hope this album will help raise Cohran’s profile. His albums with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble are truly treasures, and this album more than ably channels their spirit.

By Dan Ruccia

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