Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Chicago’s greatest buskers have Custom House Square under their spell

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. But in the case of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s eight brothers – and one brother in spirit, on drums – all three scenarios apply.

The group’s musical bloodline stems from founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – Chicago's seminal jazz collective – trumpeter Phil Cohran, formerly with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra.

Brought up on a diet of progressive jazz cultivated in their hometown in the 1960s, the brothers were taught to play from a very young age by Cohran, but it wasn’t until 1999 the Ensemble came together under their current moniker to ‘tour’ the world’s street corners, playing subways, outside shops, or anywhere they could for tips from passersby.

However, you won’t catch them on the street too often these days, with demand to see them perform live sky-rocketing after appearances at some of the world’s biggest and best festival stages, making them quite a coup for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. The group's recent contribution to the latest Gorillaz album alongside Mos Def and Snoop Dogg, only adds to the group’s ever-widening appeal.

The Chicagoeans take to the stage in baggy jeans, shades, tattoos; every one looking like the next big rap star as the Custom House marquee fills with a wall of instrumentation through a euphonium, two trombones, four trumpets and the only non-blood brother, Chris ‘360’ on drums, with the mighty sousaphone holding centre.

Each one of the Ensemble swings their instruments back and forth with the precision of a military band, undoubtedly not an easy feat for Tycho, the huge sousaphone wrapped around and aloft as he leads the way.

The drilled movement of ‘Mushallah’ gets things going, with ‘War’ and its soaring trumpet solo sounding superb. The tunes are fast, infectious and the solos kept short – this is no wandering cosmic jazz odyssey – to the point and catchy. The playful ‘Mercury’ is more laidback, but the crowd still bounces.

At this point the Ensemble introduce some hip-hop crowd participation in the marquee to form ‘a sea of energy’ out of glowing mobile phones waved aloft, after killing the lights to view the stars above the stage.

Tycho puts down the huge sousaphone to instigate more participation from the crowd, ‘I get the party started,’ sees the return, ‘You keep the party jumping,’ leading into an explosion of horns. Following this we get a cover of a Chicago techno track and Art Of Noise, ‘Movements In Love’, a staple of smooth jazz radio playlists.

By now the sweat is pouring, the shirts come off and the audience-rousing tricks of ‘lay-deez’ cat-calls and seeing which side can shout loudest, feels an unnecessary addition to the show and a bit 'chee-zee'. However, it encourages a real festival vibe that remains throughout, a mood, which for these occasions, is usually reserved for the encore. Rapping over a number of tracks also follows, but again, it’s a move in the wrong direction.

Despite this, and for all the distraction of the hip-hop swagger, ultimately with their tight musical delivery, the Ensemble show they are their father’s sons, upholding the AACM motto, ‘Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.’