Before dawn every day, Chicago trumpeter Phil Cohran woke his numerous sons and made them practice their brass instruments.
Eight of those boys grew up and formed the highly acclaimed Hypnotic Brass Ensemble which will perform October 26 at the Embassy Theatre.
This is probably the sort of outcome that Cohran foresaw, but eldest brother Gabriel “Hudah” Hubert recalled in an email interview that the boys didn’t always share their dad’s vision.
“Waking up at any hour as a kid, besides the hour you naturally want to awaken, can definitely cause a child to be upset, bitter, resentful,” he said. “But our father is a military man, so he believes that early morning is the best time to get the best results. And with that mind state, look at us now.”
The music that the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble make is hard to describe. After he happened upon the troupe about eight years ago performing on a Manhattan sidewalk, New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote this: “Certain genres sprang to mind – a New Orleans second-line band, say, or big-band jazz – but the music wasn’t jazz, exactly. The songs set small, compact melodies against a steady hip-hop beat, and everyone played simultaneously and continuously. The band had eliminated one of the dreary commonplaces of jazz, that class-recital rhythm of soloing – you go, I go, and so on, until the main melody returns.”
Later in the same profile, Frere-Jones added, “The music that Hypnotic [play] might best be described as highly composed instrumental hip-hop. If it is jazz, it’s closer in spirit to jazz from a hundred years ago: accomplished and energetic music parceled out in short songs designed for dancing.”
Hubert said no label or salad of labels applies to what the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are doing.
“We think that journalists see what they’re inspired by,” he said. “So for us, we don’t fit in a box. So that leaves inspiration in hands of interpretation. Which gives us comfort. Music is universal, and an artist really sticks to that cold as we do.”
He said he understands why journalists might feel confused.
“What’s really funny is that hip-hop and jazz coming from the same roots and environment,” Hubert said. “I think the best thing an artist does in creating is to conjure the purest form of that art.”
Hubert said the band ascribes to the Miles Davis quote: “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.”
“Critics wouldn’t get paid or make a living if they couldn’t divide and conquer,” he said.” So we as the artist has to stand and create powerful offerings that shatter all doubt and ridicule.”
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble came perilously close to never existing. In 1996, brother Anthony Neal was murdered near the college he was attending at the time, the University of Illinois.
Hubert said the other brothers almost lost their way.
“When our brother was murdered, we were teetering on brink of diving deep into Chicago’s street life,” he said. “Where there is literally no return. But we had street guys in our circle who we grew up with and looked up to us. That convinced us to keep striving for greatness. They wanted to live through the potential of our success.”
The brothers saw a path out, Hubert said, and they realized that by following it, they could light the way for others.
“Where we come from, there isn’t much that’s tangible that inspires greatness,” Hubert said. “They realized, as we did, there was a real opportunity for us to be beacons of light for the generations before us, with us and behind us.”
Bands composed of family members are often uniquely contentious, and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are no exception, Hubert said.
“We absolutely butt heads on everything, and it’s frustrating to each one of us at different times,” he said. “But when there is a great idea on the table, it’s kind of hard not to go along with it.”
When strong families go into business together, the ratio of arguments to agreements is just naturally going to be about 70/30, Hubert said.
“It’s an interesting dynamic, but it works,” he said. “So that’s why, when people hear our music or see us perform, all the chaos has been filtered out.”
Success is an elusive beast in today’s music business if you measure it the old-fashioned way: copies sold, Grammys accumulated, etc.
Hubert said the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have their own definition of success.
“In my opinion, success isn’t measured by where you want to be,” he said. “It’s measured by where you are. No one can see the future. You have no clue what’s in store for you tomorrow, today, next year or 10 minutes from now. But we all know where we’ve come from, and also where we are at present time. So to me, success is indicative of where I stand today.”
Satisfaction is being happy with what you have been able to accomplish up to the present moment, Hubert said.
“We want more, of course,” he said. “That depends on the strength of our tenacity and steadfastness, our dedication and our commitment to staying together throughout everything. But there is no doubt that we are a success story.”