If you spend much time in the Loop, chances are you’ve heard them: an eight-piece group under the el tracks, playing in a head-turning style that crosses the syncopated pleasures of funky New Orleans brass with the precision and rich harmonies of modern jazz. In a city full of street performers, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble seem to be on a different level, and they are. The eight young men are brothers, and they all learned to play music together, immersed from early childhood in the teachings of their father, trumpeter and composer Kelan Phil Cohran.
Cohran is a hugely influential, if enigmatic, figure in the history of Chicago music. An early member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and a cofounder of the AACM, he formed and led the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, whose work in the mid-60s–which combined African roots with funk and soul as the basis for a system of melodic improvisation–presaged numerous developments in jazz, from the hard electric fusion of Miles Davis to the cascading kalimba patterns Kahil El’Zabar plays in his Ritual Trio. (Ensemble members later turned up in Davis’s 70s electric bands and Earth, Wind & Fire.) Cohran’s influence has spread, too, through his work as an educator; now 76, he’s spent decades teaching at Malcolm X, Kendall, and Olive-Harvey colleges, lecturing independently, and giving private music lessons.
But no one felt that influence more strongly than his kids–he has 19 in all–and especially the eight who make up Hypnotic. From the time they were old enough to pick up an instrument, the brothers were awakened each morning at five for an hour-long lesson before school. “It was something we had to do,” says trumpeter Gabriel Hubert, at 26 the eldest band member. “When you’re a child you can’t tell your parents, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.'” In part to give them something to practice for, Cohran scheduled performances at community events for what he called Phil Cohran & His Youth Ensemble. “We’d work on long tones, tonguing exercises, and then go over material we might be playing at shows,” says Gabriel.
The lessons also included lectures on science, history, and health. Cohran studied yoga and astronomy for much of the 60s, and in the mid-70s he ran a vegetarian health-food restaurant. He insisted that musical training be part of a holistic understanding of the world. When their parents were performing and practicing the kids were also there, quietly listening. “They were picking up the stuff through osmosis,” says Aquilla Sadalla, one of Cohran’s five ex-wives, who in addition to playing with him for many years was also a member of the all-female AACM group Samana. She’s the biological mother of four of the Hypnotics. “He would teach them music, but also its relationship to history and different cultures.”
All this on top of school was a lot to take, and the strain on the kids grew as they got older. “There were times in the summer or during spring break when everyone’s out playing,” says Gabriel. “You don’t necessarily want to be on that strict rehearsal time when you got this girl you’re trying to meet or you got something else to do.” Cohran’s own career had been marked by a constant drive to break away and establish his own identity; with Sun Ra and again with AACM, he elected to leave rather than adapt to ideas he didn’t agree with. Now his sons were breaking away from him.
In 1994 Cohran and Sadalla split up, and the trumpeter moved from their home near 86th and Stony Island to Rogers Park. It was around this time that some of the brothers told their father they no longer wanted to study with him. By ’96 most of them had put down their horns. A few started a rap group called the Wolf Pack; Gabriel, trumpeter Amal Hubert, and trombonist Saiph Graves had begun college.
But three of the youngest kids–trumpeter Tarik Graves, trombonist Seba Graves, and tubaist Tycho Cohran–continued to play. In 1999 they began busking in the Loop, playing songs they’d learned in the school band. When they began making $50 to $100 each every time out, it caught their older brothers’ attention. Within a year the group had grown to include the rest of them–Gabriel, Saiph, Amal, baritone saxophonist Uttama Hubert, and trumpeter Jafar Graves. Adopting their current name, they began to play their arrangements of popular R & B songs, and before long they were composing originals as well.
Their years together have made collaborative writing an intuitive process. All of Hypnotic’s compositions, like their father’s, are modal, usually growing from a riff someone brings into rehearsal. Intricate melodies, contrapuntal figures, and dense, shifting harmonies emerge as one by one the others add their parts. “There’s a sound we look for every time we play,” says Gabriel. “That comes from being reared and grassrooted in the same element and area, from youngsters to adults. It becomes second nature.”
Cohran knew his sons were playing together, but he didn’t check them out until 2000, after several friends had told him how good they sounded. He was impressed. “They have such a dynamic thing because they compose their music together, which is an AACM thing,” he says. He tried to give them some pointers, but as Gabriel says, “we weren’t ready for them.”
Early the same year Mark Henning, a member of the local art-pop band National Trust, came across Hypnotic playing downtown and was blown away. “It had this mournful sound and it was really sophisticated,” he says. “I was having a bad day when I heard them, and it struck a chord for me.” He convinced band leader Neil Rosario to go see them. Rosario too became a fan, and he later bought one of the CDs that Hypnotic started selling at their performances in 2001 (according to Gabriel they’ve sold thousands of copies on the street; the disc is now available at Reckless Records). Eventually Henning and Rosario offered to help with future recordings. Last fall, when the National Trust were working on their new album at Engine Music in Wicker Park, they used studio downtime for sessions with Hypnotic. A split single by the two groups is due later this year on the English label Tongue Master; meanwhile Hypnotic are finishing up a record with Henning, which they plan to release sometime in 2004.
In May the brothers joined Cohran in Saint Louis for their grandmother’s funeral. They all performed at the services; later, the sons asked their father if they could resume their studies with him. Lessons, the first in nearly a decade, began soon afterward. “It’s allowed us to learn what we didn’t know, and it’s allowed us to be around pops more,” says Gabriel. “Our parents have always been in our corner as far as what we were doing. They might not have always agreed with how we do it, but in terms of cultivating what’s in us and finding out who we are, they always supported us.”
Phil Cohran, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and Aquilla Sadalla perform together on Tuesday, July 29, at 9 PM at Sonotheque, 1444 W. Chicago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.