2021 is regarded as the 21st anniversary of the founding of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. However, one can only wonder how easy it is to define the birth point of an act when its members are sons of Phil Cohran, a one-time member of the revered Afro-futurist jazz combo, Sun Ra Arkestra.
Trumpeter, Seba Graves considers the question “Well that is kind of difficult because we were playing together as the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble as children. Our father taught us how to play, so the nucleus of what we are today as musicians was then. And we were playing the same instruments. But some of us kind of steered away from it and we definitely weren’t Hypnotic Brass – we were playing our father’s music. But in around 1999, 2000, we began playing our own music and we just took it to the streets, playing street performing in Chicago. So that would be the nucleus of the actual Hypnotic Brass Ensemble band.”
The question of knowing whether they were always going to be doing this together is brushed aside by Graves.
We’ve been doing it since we were children. We never entertained a reality that didn’t involve us playing together as musicians
”Listen man, it was never a plan to do it – we’ve always done it. Like planning to breathe… like, you don’t have to plan to breathe. It’s just what you do. It was the same with us. We’ve been doing it since we were children. We never entertained a reality that didn’t involve us playing together as musicians. It seemed like it would be our entire lives. I mean, why not!”
Why not, indeed! Despite being in separate cities, the ensemble stayed connected throughout lockdown. The period offered them a time to reset as they approached their big anniversary.
“I mean it was much like it was for everyone else,” says Graves.
“It was a bit scary at first but then the downtime was welcome. You got a chance to be more creative and see things from a more introspective point of view because you’re not moving around and travelling. So it was a time to be creative. And especially with so much going on in the world it was a perfect time to channel that anxiety into your creativity. So that’s what we were doing, you know - creating. The music that you will hear in the future and the coming months and years is what we spent our time creating.”
This period of introspection took them to some pretty creative, and surprising, places, as the recent This is a Mindfulness Drill EP attests. Released in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Jagjaguwar, a label more known as a home for alternative guitar sounds, This is a Mindfulness Drill is an interpretation of British experimental/alt folk musician Richard Youngs’ three-track Sapphie album, with Hypnotic providing lush gossamer textures for the blissful accompaniment of guest vocalists Moses Sumney, Perfume Genius and Sharon Van Etten. It’s a record to stop you in your tracks.
Explains Graves: “They presented us with the music and we enjoyed what they were trying to do. I think a lot of us, especially being in New York City, a lot of us are on the go so much. We’re always moving and moving fast and we thought it would be important to take some time and be mindful.
“It is introspective music and meditative music. So it kind of fit with what we’ve already done in the past and we thought it would be cool to lend our sound to that project. It fit with our brand, so to speak.”
What did you enjoy about it?
“We didn’t know that the pandemic was coming but it kinda landed right on time with all that was happening around us, you know. With people having so much weighing them down and so much on their minds, some of the anxiety and being worried about so many things, that music landed right on time to pull people into a space where they could really reflect on themselves and reflect on their surroundings. Even the racial tension with George Floyd that was happening in the summertime of 2020, I felt that it was good timing for people to really reflect and be mindful of your actions and mindful of your deeds and things you are doing. And music seemed like it could help with some of that.
“And we recorded it prior to it. So sometimes the creator has a way of placing things in your path at the perfect time. I think that was one of those things. We need to be more mindful and present in our actions and in our thoughts.”
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble has always been open to collaboration, and apart from their two headlining gigs on the Sunday of the Jazz Festival (a party set at the Everyman and spiritual jazz set Live at St. Luke’s) they will be appearing with a new Irish project, called MåsExödus, at the Everyman on the Friday and Saturday. The project is the brainchild of Mark Murphy and musical director Max Zaska, and as a co-founder of Dublin promoters Choice Cuts, the former has a long association with Hypnotic, having brought them to Ireland.
“He’s always been a part of us coming there. So when he told us he had a project that he wanted us to be part of, it was like sure. There was no question,” says Graves, who describes MåsExödus as “a vibe.“
After their second Sunday concert they’ll no doubt be vibing with Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, for the first of his two Jazz Festival gigs.
“We’ve played with Yasiin a lot of times in different regions and it’s always fresh, every show. We have a different setlist every time. He likes to do something fresh, so we have some tricks up our sleeve, man,” promises Graves.