Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Saturday, September 10, 2011
River Run Centre
Guelph Jazz Festival
Preceding Henry Threadgill at the Saturday night concert at the 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival was the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, an eight-piece group of brass instruments plus drums. The Ensemble is also from Chicago – in fact, seven of the eight musicians are brothers – and also has a notable bass brass undertone (from sousaphone and euphonium in its case). However, those are its only similarities to Threadgill.
The Ensemble started by lining up at the front of the stage – all but the drummer at the back. Three trumpets, two trombones, and one euphonium surrounded their largest musician, Tycho Cohran. He carried a giant sousaphone which was almost as large as he was. (The sound technicians, perhaps stumped how to mic the instrument, had ended up taping a vocal mic inside the huge bell). Cohran had an outstanding upper-body muscular development, which he needed to carry an instrument that was clearly extremely heavy, especially while dancing on tip-toe while playing it (he thankfully put it down several times at appropriate breaks in the concert).
It was an impressive sight, and an impressive wall of sound ensued, which could best be defined as a cross between brass band and hip-hop. I particularly loved the sousaphone which provided a clear bass line without ever turning oompah.
I had only heard of the Ensemble as a (popular) club band, and it became painfully obvious very quickly that this was indeed its metier. Their music was infectious and well-suited for dancing. The musicians shared out the announcing / singing duties; each of them was energetic, and did his best to get the audience up and dancing and clapping. The songs and their lyrics were upbeat, politically progressive, and hopeful.
But the music did not let them show off any individual technical brilliance, there was little or no improvisation, and the songs, once shorn of their lyrics, tended to blend together.
The Ensemble is very good at what they do: tightness, coordination, infectious cheer, and a demanding beat you can dance to. But that wasn't necessarily what the audience wanted or expected, or what fit into the space. Near the end of their set, about half the musicians pulled off their shirts (exposing well-toned chests) to make it appear they were getting as hot as the audience. But the air-conditioning works very well in the River Run Centre, and the audience really wasn't into standing and dancing for an hour among theatre-style seating, and the act just didn't work.
The Ensemble's style simply didn't fit a traditional concert, nor the type of music that the Guelph Jazz Festival normally presents. And for an audience that expected amazing technique and inventiveness and improv – as opposed to sexiness and a compelling ensemble sound and danceability – in its headliners, it was regrettably a bad match.
– Alayne McGregor