Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble


Approaching his eighty‐fifth birthday, legendary jazz musicianPhil Cohran lives a couple of blocks from the lake on the north side of Chicago. His modest apartment is filled with a palpable richness. His cornet and trumpets, zithers, French horn, harp and frankiphones (an electric kalimba of his own invention); his beloved telescope; African art; a mural of the Chinese monastery where Muslim monks bestowed on him the name "Kelan" ("holy scripture"); hand‐printed posters from the culture wars of 1960s Chicago; all reflect a life dedicated not just to music, but also to science and astronomy, to history and activism. In its range of subject matter, the track‐list of Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble embodies this invigorating and all‐embracing curiosity: a Mexican hill‐town filled with perfume and flowers, an Illinois state prison where Cohran taught inmates in the 1960s, heavenly dancers in the temples of Cambodia, a tribute to a 16th‐century Venetian musicologist. Welcome to the musical world of Kelan Philip Cohran. Cohran was born in Mississippi and grew up in St Louis. In the immediate postwar years, St. Louis was a jazz heartland, home of stalwarts like Clark Terry and Oliver Nelson (both of whom he played with), not to mention Miles Davis. In 1950, Cohran moved to Kansas City, where he played trumpet in one of the hardest swinging swing‐groups, led by Jay McShann (who famously had given Charlie Parker his first job). With McShann he toured as far as Mexico and played proto‐rock'n'roll in Texas with the likes of Big Mama Thornton on vocals. Back in St. Louis, Cohran led his own group, the Rajas Of Swing. Then in the mid‐'50s he moved to Chicago. He had a small group with a friend, the legendary tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. And in 1959, through Gilmore, he was invited to join Sun Ra's Arkestra, at a crucial period in the evolution of that extraordinary group. Effortlessly wrapping traditions as divergent as boogie‐woogie and electronica in an Afro‐centric, intergalactic mythology of his own making, Sun Ra casts a huge shadow across conventional narratives of jazz history. You can hear the emergence of Cohan's artistic voice on the LP Angels And Demons At Play, recorded in 1960 -‐ Sun Ra's masterpiece from the period. On the track "Music From The World Tomorrow," against the urgent, whipped and chopped percussion of the Arkestra, it is Cohran's zither, initially bowed and then plucked and strummed, which is the track's magic ingredient. More profoundly, it was Sun Ra's example -- his defiant self‐confidence and sense of purpose -- that set Cohran on his own "pathway to unknown worlds." Indeed, this spirit of self‐belief led Cohran to turn down the invitation to accompany the Arkestra when Sun Ra moved east in 1961. Staying in Chicago, Cohran founded the Affro‐Arts Theater and performed with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, recording the group for his own Zulu Records imprint. The AACM, a musicians' collective of immense influence and importance, had its first meeting in Cohran's front room. He taught music tirelessly in schools and prisons. His studies into music theory and history led him to the discovery of a key book in his life, Gioseffo Zarlino's treatise on harmony, published in Venice in 1558. Astronomy is another passion and another area of expertise. One of the gems of the Cohran discography is African Skies, with its lovely harp playing, commissioned by the Chicago Planetarium in 1993. In Chicago he also raised a large family. Many of his children have gone on to become professional musicians; eight of them are the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. For the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the voyage to where they are now -- whether tearing up festivals from Glastonbury to Melbourne, or touring with Gorillaz, or recording their first album on Honest Jon's -- has involved a necessary stepping away from their father's shadow. Phil Cohran is the first to recognize this, happily allowing their sound -- heavy on the funk, with the urgency of hip-hop never far away -- to blossom. But likewise this album is for all of them a natural step. Recorded in Chicago in June 2011, the idea was beautifully simple -- "my music and their band." This is music that plumbs the depths and rings with joy.