Album Review: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)

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01. MP3: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – War
02. MP3: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Sankofa

As a biologist, I think a lot about the future of mankind.  For example, genetic engineering: will it ever be useful, technically feasible, or morally acceptable to genetically engineer humans with a vast array of traits?

Then, I find out about projects like Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.  Inheritance of musical ability the old fashioned way: juice of the loins, incubate in the womb, pop out kid, pass down craft.  Phil Cohran did this times 8, to be precise.  His name may be more familiar to you in the context of the Sun Ra Arkestra (too crazy NOT to be true), where he played trumpet.

Hypnotic is a pure brass and drums instrumental band (8 horn players, all Cohran’s sons, and a drummer) forged in the fading flames of Chicago’s once fiercely active, and still ferociously inventive jazz scene.  In this context, the band’s sound and catalytic energy should be expected, but it still manages to take your breath away every time.  Look no farther than their collaborations with Blur’s Damon Albarn, Tony Allen or Mos Def for more vetting.

Capitalizing on a number of traditions, Hypnotic have created a sound that is as refreshing as it is steeped in legacies, by cherry-picking the best aspects of diverse genres and proceeding to “mix em all up into one bowl.”  You can hear the ages of New Orleans brass bands, soul, the entire lineage of jazz from its origins in Chicago to modern-day avant-garde approaches to rhythm and horn arranging (though mostly steering away from dissonance), over to big band and marching bands complete with synchronized movements.  In many ways, their arrangements are reminiscent of marching bands more than traditional jazz, with solos backed by constantly evolving undergirding lines that are just as dynamic and tuneful.  And like big band arrangements (and much of popular music), songs are often developed in strophic form.  Distinct hip-hop grooves and backbeats are sculpted by precise drumming and the interplay of horns that hit in solid unison resulting in irresistable headbobbing and toe-tapping rhythms.  The only downside I can hear in Hypnotic’s sound is that they trend more towards this type of percussive attack, even at times when it might help to keep things a little more soulful and smooth.  A minor flaw in a serious gem.

“Alyo” with its big trumpet chorus leading into an old-soul solo, both floating atop a funk backdrop punctuated by titular vocal shouts cheerleading the track’s namesake: star dancer Alyo Tolbert of the Montu Dance Company.  The entry of low brass gives you chills early on in “Gibbous,” before everyone proceeds into nimble contrapuntal runs throughout the wax and wane of the track.  The sectional choirs of horns on “War” sound off like battle cries, sparring and parrying each other with staccato verses, all while a lamentatious trumpet solo coasts above the fray.  ”Marcus Garvey” channels some lush and racy Latin sounds reminiscent of that drum corps standard “Malagueña.”  Further World influence can be found on album standout “Sankofa,” a track drenched in the funky Afrobeat stylings of its source material: Tony Allen’s “Losun.”  ”Ballicki Bone,” its title a loose echo of its melody, was written as an homage of sorts to the members’ childhood.  As such, its development feels much like a precocious child’s adventure into the wilderness, progressively exploring and adapting right up until the closing fade-out of a capella vocals.  Even the frenetic and meandering “Rabbit Hop” (and its unfortunate remix) aren’t nearly enough to bring down the solid gold found in every other track.

This release is undoubtedly one of the most vital, invigorating and listenable releases this year (potentially many years).  An unsurprising accomplishment considering Hypnotic make a conscious effort for an “organic style” as described by trombonist Saiph “Cid” Graves to The New York Times; a self-avowed reaction to the increasingly technologically reliant music of today.  Graves said the ensemble aims to craft a form of “musical medicine” that can “touch those people who don’t want to be touched.” In this respect the album is a homerun.

Following this philosophy, the ensemble has recently moved to NYC and plays spontaneously around the city on street corners and in subway stations.  This is part and parcel of Hypnotic’s return to the basics of early brass bands: bringing music and entertainment to the average man, and affording them the opportunity to partake in the enterprise.  Distinct in a way from more so-called professionalized troupes such as the Dirty Dozen, Hypnotic call to mind the more community-minded and open nature of early brass bands. This is partially due to the rawness on the record: the sound has large dynamic range and is well produced, but the playing is not technically flawless (unlike the immaculately polished Dirty Dozen’s).  Brass bursts can crackle or splat at times, an occasional note will waver out of tune before finding its center.  But rather than detract from the recordings, it makes them all the more endearing and electric, infusing it with their already infamous live energy.

I can’t emphasize how highly I regard Hypnotic’s ethos and the product of their endeavors.  When Graves says their music flows ”from our soul to the soul of everyone within ears’ reach,” I believe it.  They truly live and breath music, managing to take disparate threads from multiple genres and weave them into cohesive and universally appealing songs.  ”We try to write a song that everyone will listen to,”  Graves states matter of factly.

And with albums like this one, they need not worry.  Everyone will.

Pick up your copy at the True Vine (and see if you can track down some of the vinyl singles they released beforehand online).

Label: Honest Jon’s

Release date:May 8 2009

Track listing:

  1. Alyo
  2. Gibbous
  3. War
  4. Ballicki Bone
  5. Flipside
  6. Marcus Garvey
  7. Jupiter
  8. Party Started
  9. Rabbit Hop
  10. Sankofa
  11. Hypnotic
  12. Satin Sheets
  13. Rabbit Hop (Version)

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One Response to “Album Review: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)”

  1. jason says:

    Hey – hope you don’t mind the off topic comment – this is Jason, I work with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. It looks like you are a fan of brass bands so I thought you’d want to know that the Dozen are promoting a free download of “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” It’s posted up on their site: http://www.dirtydozenbrass.com.

    I hope you’ll grab a copy for yourself and If your readers are fans of the Dozen, you can also take that free download widget and post it up on your blog and invite your readers to check it out right here on your site. Just click on the word Share right below the Free Download button.

    Thanks for reading- and for your time. Jason

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