J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Brothers Hypnotic: The Family that Plays Together

One would expect the sons of a Sun Ra Arkestra veteran would naturally take to music. Their somewhat unconventional upbringing is hardly surprising either. Yet, the members of the eight-brothers strong Hypnotic Brass Ensemble both honor and reject their father’s musical legacy in ways that generate real tension throughout Brothers Hypnotic (trailer here) Reuben Atlas’s behind-the-scenes look at the brassy jam-band, which airs this Monday on PBS, as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

After early stints with the Jay McShann and the U.S. Navy bands, Phil Cohran signed up with the Arkestra while it was based in Chicagoland. When Sun Ra continued on his galactic journey, Cohran helped co-found the AACM. For a while, he was also the director of the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble (which could have passed for the Arkestra’s children’s auxiliary), but as soon as one Cohran brother left the fold, the entire ensemble deflated.

In a sense, they were reborn as Hypnotic, a jazz and funk influenced jam-band somewhat in the tradition of the Hot 8 Brass Band and their New Orleans contemporaries, but utilizing a strictly brass-only instrumentation. They have a great sound (particularly when they are not incorporating just okay raps into the mix). You can hear a bit of their father in there, but there are plenty of other elements in the mix as well.

Atlas does an excellent job documenting the ironic realities of a jazz (or jazz-ish) musician’s life. One minute you are eating cold Spaghetti-O’s out of the can, but the very next day you might be off on a seat-of-the-pants European tour. The filmmaker caught the Ensemble at a fortuitous time, when they were still giving street performances (which are highly cinematic), but were also fielding offers from legitimate labels. Musicians who tune in might get a nasty case of heartburn when they turn down Atlantic Records, but you have to give them credit for staying true to the convictions they inherited from their father. Unfortunately, the broadcast edit of Brothers H never allows a musical performance to continue long enough to give viewers a truly vivid sense of the ensemble’s full force.

Atlas captures some intimate moments with a band that is on the way up, but shrewdly trying to avoid a harsh burn-out. The Brothers must have seen their share of music docs before appearing in their own. It is nice to know some musicians are trying to learn from others’ mistakes. While Atlas also includes enough intra-family drama to avoid accusations of PR flakery, the film never feels intrusive or gossipy. Recommended for fans of funky brass (and who isn’t?), Brothers Hypnotic debuts this coming Monday (4/7) on PBS’s Independent Lens.

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