Kelan Phil Cohran Credit: John Broughton

On Sunday morning I chatted with superb trumpeter Hugh Ragin as we waited for a flight to Chicago from Norway. We’d both been there for the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, where he played in the recently resurrected Art Ensemble of Chicago. Ragin performed in Chicago in early June, and he told me Sunday that during his visit he was able to meet with Kelan Phil Cohran—a cornetist, instrument inventor, composer, educator, and genuine Chicago visionary, who died just weeks later, on June 28, at age 90. Ragin spoke of the encounter with an air of solemnity—for him it was important and inspiring, though he’s 66 years old himself and has built an impressive career working with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and David Murray. That such an established talent was so touched by the visit speaks volumes about Cohran’s genius.

Cohran packed a lot of experience into those 90 years. He played trumpet in Sun Ra’s Arkestra during its early days; he cofounded the AACM in 1965; he formed the wildly original Artistic Heritage Ensemble, which blended jazz, soul, and African influences; he mentored and influenced a huge variety of musicians, including Chaka Khan, Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar; he fathered and taught the eight-horn playing brothers who make up the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. He was a huge force in Chicago creative music and a kind soul overflowing with wisdom and knowledge. I interviewed Cohran a couple of times over the years, and I always ended up leaving my questions behind as we discussed a broad range of subjects—not just music but also, say, Chinese history or astronomy.

Cohran’s work has never been well represented by recordings, but luckily much of it has resurfaced over the past decade on CD, via Katalyst Entertainment. For me nothing can top the 1967 debut by the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, a self-titled album popularly called On the Beach after one of its most absorbing tunes. For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, I’m sharing the indelible opening track, “Minstrel,” which prominently feature the frankiphone, an amplified kalimba of Cohran’s own design—the way he played it exerted a profound impact on both White and El’Zabar. The remarkable lineup of the band included some of the most important musicians in Chicago history, among them great blues drummer Bob Crowder, guitar virtuoso and future Miles Davis sideman Pete Cosey, tubaist Aaron Dodd (who’d later play in the Pharaohs and 8 Bold Souls), and future EWF horn players Louis Satterfield and Donald Myrick. In many ways this band epitomized the versatility and curiosity of Chicago’s best musicians, who moved seamlessly between stylistically disparate projects.

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Today’s playlist:

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
Quatuor Qwat Neum Sixx, Live at Festival NPAI 2007 (Amor Fati)
Jar Moff, Commercial Mouth (PAN)
Count Five, Psychotic Reaction: The Very Best of the Count Five (Collectables)
Giovanni Guidi, Gianluca Petrella, Louis Sclavis, and Gerald Cleaver, Ida Lupino (ECM)