The eight brass-playing brothers of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – four trumpets, three trombones and a compelling sousaphone – grew up in Chicago’s Southside and spice the rich flavours of new-generation New Orleans marching bands with grainy harmonies, gritty rap and beguiling onstage patter. Once buskers, they are now festival crowd-raisers, and the Ronnie Scott’s audience, never as po-faced as some would make out, took to them wholeheartedly.
The first set started with a single trumpet tuning note, a shall-we-do-it count and a crisp drum break. It was a misleading entry to two sets of hard-nosed jazz entertainment that matched insistent off-beats and call-and-response riffs with the choreography of a James Brown brass section. And all was powered by a single sousaphone locked in to a lone drummer delivering four-to-the-floor beats and polyrhythmic funk – Sola Akingbola, percussionist with Jamiroquai, skin-tight and needing only minimal direction.
With visuals and rhythms truly in the pocket, the brass alternated the minor cadences of hip-hop with the nagging offbeats of ska, slabs of harmony with funky riffs, and dallied with afrobeat and Latin disco. There were solid solos from trumpet and rather good trombone. But the staples were body-shifting rhythms at heartbeat tempos, and at this they proved to be masters.
The song titles referenced cosmology and the planets, open-top driving through a lakeside breeze and busking in the rain – the tempos rarely changed. And much was made of a remarkable musical upbringing – Phillip Cohran, their musician father, was a core member of composer Sun Ra’s avant-garde ensembles in 1950s Chicago. When Ra left for New York, Cohran stayed behind and established the Sun Ark performance space. His children’s music practice started at 6am. “We were the only kids in Chicago doing this,” one band member recalled. “We hated it at the time.”
By the second set’s end, the audience had waved mobiles to mimic the cosmos and chanted in West African. Great entertainment with deep roots. ()