• Reuben Atlas
  • Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performing at the Shrine

On Monday night at 10 PM, WTTW will screen Reuben Atlas’s Brothers Hypnotic, a lively, music-soaked documentary about the Chicago-bred Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The group, which moved to New York in 2006, consists of eight sons fathered by trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and visionary Phil Cohran—an early member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, a cofounder of the AACM, and the man behind the Affro-Arts Theater. The music his Artistic Heritage Ensemble created in the late 60s exerted a huge influence on Chicago musicians, including the Pharaohs, Kahil El’Zabar, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. In 2003 I profiled the ensemble, whose members learned to play brass instruments during rigorous group lessons conducted by their father every morning before they headed to school. There’s some incredible footage of his sons performing with him when they were part of the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble.

Some of the Cohran sons eventually turned their back on his teachings and started making hip-hop, but eventually their training pulled them all back together, and they developed a rich sound borrowing from New Orleans funeral music, funk, jazz, and hip-hop. There’s not much of a story line in Brothers Hypnotic, but it does nicely draw out the philosophical conflicts between Cohran and his sons, who struggle throughout to define their music and to reconcile their interests with the lessons and aesthetics imparted by their fiercely independent, highly principled dad. Atlas shot the movie over a number of years, capturing an offer from Atlantic Records to sign the band and moving through a decision to work with the British independent Honest Jons. The documentary follows the group on a couple of European tours, and films them playing both on the streets of New York and back at Cohran’s Rogers Park garden apartment. There are interviews with Cohran and their mothers, Aquilla Sadallah and Maia Hubert. There is also live footage of the group performing with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Prince, and there’s a stark contrast between those euphoric moments, stoked by the charge of playing for huge audiences, and the group exercise of playing serene long tones that occurs at the start of the documentary (which you can check out below). At the conclusion of the film it remains unclear which way the group will go.

Last year Hypnotic Brass Ensemble released Fly: The Customs Prelude (Pheelco), where its music seems to remain in something of a holding pattern, stuck between commercial funk and more experimental directions. In the middle of the documentary there’s a telling remark from Cohran as he warns his sons about the fickleness of the music industry: “The mistake that everybody makes is that they think they’re gonna be hot forever. It ain’t going to happen like that. The main thing is that you’re doing well now, you’re going before the world. Everybody has that period, that cycle where you expand. A few people stay out there a long time, but most people only go out there for about three years and then they implode.” He laughs, but his sons don’t look very amused. He tells them it’s important to have a strong home base and says Chicago is perfect for that, but they’ve already decided that New York is the place for them.

Still, the final part of the film features footage shot at the recording session for the 2012 record Cohran and his sons made together—arguably the finest work yet from the Hypnotics—where they both do their best to bridge the generational and stylistic gaps that exist. The version of the documentary screening next week as part of the PBS series Independent Lens is 53 minutes long, about a half hour shorter than the theatrical version of the film that’s been showing at film festivals over the last year, and while the arc of the narrative and its techniques are pretty conventional, the charisma of the subjects, especially Cohran, is compelling enough to eclipse that lack of verve.

Today’s playlist:

Nicola Ratti, Streengs (Senufo Edition)
Sven-Åke Johansson, Die Harke und der Spaten (Umlaut)
Arnold Schönberg, Erwartung (Wergo)
Willie Nelson and Family, Let’s Face the Music and Dance (Legacy)
Gabriela Friedli Trio, Started (Intakt)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.