Twirling care-free in a field of anonymity like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, Grapevine draws resolve from all your charming reading. You survive this tautological word racket, and hopefully gleam some new music in return. It’s for you that I tune in, turn on and drop out or whatever it’s called, and do this wacky nonsense after work when the laptop flickers and the world is but a husk of numbers on a computer. Yet, despite this, if a tree falls in woods and no one is there to hear it, it makes a seismic sound...because that tree will soon be on Grapevine, heralded as some brilliant new band and splayed like a drab strumpet for all her glory in the naked stocks of Soundcloud shame.
Could being covered on here really sound anyyy more saucy? Maybe...if there were pictures.
Today’s post is from a Hypnotic Brass Ensemble gig. The Chicago band who played London’s Jazz Café Monday night, but missed the pages of the national press (it soon transpired) are not your ordinary show-stoppers. Fans include Jude Law and Damon Albarn, the Blur liberal world arts genius. The band have tirelessly toured their back yard for 10 years, busking (check out some of their videos on youtube), ducking and diving, making self-released records- working their way towards these sorts of moments: gigs with roomfuls of warm, pre-disposed crowds. Their self-titled album- their first in the UK- was released by distinguished label Honest Jons in 2009 after the band were spotted busking near the record store in Ladbroke Grove. Sooner or later they were on Later…with Jools Holland. This, quite literally, is an urban hip-hop nine piece brass band, EIGHT of whom are brothers (awkward for the ninth member, eh?) and sons of jazz musician Tony Cohran. HBE smack you with something so direct and- as anyone who was there will testify- insanely loud, that you will be jolted to recall that brass is not only something heard in the grounds of Buckingham Palace or at the local arts centre. It has a historic place in music: the street, community life.
The nine are lively, spinning their four trumpets, two trombones, one sousaphone (yeeeaah, that’s this) and baritone in different directions to Gabriel Wallace’s drums. Their unified and determined symphony is great, aesthetically as well as sonically. It’s a powerful, raw image, these nine lads bopping to brass. They punctuate the drive with raps, each taking turns to draw in the uncertain crowd and re-assure them. You can see this is something they’ve honed. Whether due to their roots on Chicago’s south side, personal gigging experience or a wilful effort to integrate rap into their recordings (see this year’s EP Bulletproof Brass, which has vocals), heavy crowd interaction is necessary for things to fully come to life and break down a difficult fourth wall that haunts many a contradictory musician. HBE look different, even if they’re just another band. Cynics won’t know what to think when nine men with tattoos and bristling egos turn up and start pushing their trumpets on everyone and then take off their shirts. What’s English popular culture’s point of reference for this? None. Audience interaction is necessary for the uninitiated to understand what HBE are to them. Lots of cheesy call and response gets the crowd going. Chanting before ‘Touch the Sky’, ‘Kryptonite’ and ‘Party Started’ among other tracks warms them to dancing and trusting this lot of American orchestra men before the raps step aside for brass. It doesn’t take long for these gestures to become reciprocal and soon we're part of the mix. The crowd finally chant the band back down from the Jazz Café’s high restaurant balcony in appreciation. HBE get the crowd down on the floor. Everyone- (even closet killjoys…it’s hard to tell what proportion of the audience are engaging in this sort of act of obedience because they genuinely want to) was down, groovin, before rising to touch the sky. THAT sort of infectious enthusiasm is hard. HBE must have realised that certain audiences want to be led, and once they are, the atmosphere can just build.
HBE’s music is assertive. The Hypnotic in their name, derived from when the group were busking and a subway passenger missed many trains to hear them play, is certainly apt. Each song marches to a defined formula; a deep, jagged groove rather than the soft melodies often heard in jazz. Tycho Cohran- who to me seems like the leader of group for his massive sousaphone - settles into a bass groove that the rest of the band follow. Energy is then brought on by trumpets. On ‘War’, their trademark track that they must have played hundreds if not thousands of times, this formula is clearest. Rumbles blaze from Tycho, and his brothers swirl around him with repetitious horns.
Looking ahead, how will HBE avoid being labelled one-trick ponies? They deliver hip-hop’s rhythm, but songs from the UK debut didn’t allow much room to manoeuvre. Most importantly, the band ultimately have to do what they want to do. The moment Gabriel, Seba, Tarik, Gabriel, Uttama, Jafar, Saiph, Amal and Tycho’s love for their instruments and inquisitiveness dies out, so too will everyone else’s. They’re integral. This is the same with many bands I’ve seen live who come out of leftfield to mainstream tastes, particularly jazz and ‘world’ musicians. The moment the love and soul is lost between the artist and his music, uninitiated music aficionado get all aloof from it. Bulletproof Brass is a good indication of future direction. The rapping works well as an extension to their energy, live and on record, and the samples show an interesting change of style. I hope, personally, that we get something like a brass version of The Roots from HBE: a band that’s reflective, single-minded and soulful, to join a great collection of modern popular hip-hop artists. HBE certainly have the independence to do that, and the road-hardened experience to find their way. As we’re seeing fleetingly on the new EP, and most notably in the calmer ‘Black Boy’, Hypnotic’s awakening might yet be to come.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - War by ChoiceCuts
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble bit at Jazz Cafe by MiCloud