Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is punk rock. Sure, the group of eight, including seven brothers, plays a New Orleans-style funk-jazz, not three-chord rock. But with their rejection of major-label money and their beat-up instruments, dented and duct taped from years of playing on the streets of Chicago and New York City, Hypnotic is more spiritually related to the mythological ideal of DIY punk than it is to the modern notion of nightclub-bound jazz. The ensemble’s story is told in first-time filmmaker Reuben Atlas’ documentary, Brothers Hypnotic, which shows Saturday at the D.C. Independent Film Festival.
The seven brass-playing brothers’ independent spirit is descended from their father. They are all sons of Phil Cohran, a Chicago trumpeter who played with jump-blues pianist Jay McShann in the ’50s before hooking up with Sun Ra’s Arkestra for a two-year stint starting in 1959. In 1965 he was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and led his own band, Artistic Heritage Ensemble, that put its African heritage and black civil rights struggles at the forefront of its experimental but accessible jazz.
Cohran was also a virile man, having fathered 15 boys and seven girls, many of whom were raised in his home, along with two wives. Brothers Hypnotic shows that some of the kids started to play their horns as young as 3 years old, and the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble was as serious and strict about practicing as the Partridge Family was frivolous.
It is out of this unique environment that the four trumpets, two trombones, one euphonium, and a sousaphone (plus nonsibling drummers) came to be the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Brothers Hypnotic captures the tension between the group’s upbringing in an Afrocentric household and coming of musical age in the hip-hop era.
Cohran was basically proud of being poor, so when Atlantic Records offered Hypnotic Brass Ensemble real money to release the group’s albums, it caused some soul searching among the brothers. But the musicians followed their instincts, turned down Atlantic, and continued down the independent path in order to control their shared destiny. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble continues to make much of its money on the streets of the Big Apple, where the group also sells hand-assembled CDs, as well as by playing festivals in Europe and backing the likes of Mos Def, Prince, and Blur.
Brothers Hypnotic does a good job of showing how the group’s unorthodox upbringing still plays a pivotal role in theirs lives, even if the siblings refuse to play their father’s music. After all, what self-respecting punk would play his dad’s jams?