||Approaching his eighty-fifth birthday, sharp and lean, Phil Cohran lives a couple of blocks from the lake on the north side of Chicago. His modest apartment is filled with a palpable richness. His cornet and trumpets, zithers, French horn, harp and frankiphones (an electric kalimba of his own invention), his beloved telescope, African art, a mural of the Chinese monastery where Muslim monks bestowed on him the name Kelan ("holy scripture"), hand-printed posters from the culture wars of 1960s Chicago, all reflect a life dedicated not just to music, but also to science and astronomy, to history and activism. In its range of subject matter the track-list of Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble embodies this invigorating and all-embracing curiosity: a Mexican hill-town filled with perfume and flowers... an Illinois state prison where Cohran taught inmates in the 1960s... heavenly dancers in the temples of Cambodia... a tribute to a sixteenth-century Venetian musicologist. Welcome to the musical world of Kelan Philip Cohran.
Cohran was born in Mississippi and grew up in St Louis. In the immediate post-war years St Louis was a jazz heartland, home of stalwarts like Clark Terry and Oliver Nelson (both of whom he played with), not to mention a genius called Miles Davis. In 1950 Cohran moved to another heartland, Kansas City, where he played trumpet in one of the hardest swinging swing-groups, led by Jay McShann (who famously had given Charlie Parker his first job). With McShann he spent ?the best year of my life?, touring as far as Mexico and playing proto-rock?n?roll in Texas with the likes of Big Mama Thornton on vocals. Back in St Louis Cohran led his own group, the Rajas Of Swing, whose show involved wearing red jackets, grey slacks, blue suede shoes and turbans.
Then in the mid-50s he moved to Chicago. He had a small group with a friend, the legendary tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, whose regular gig was to play at Sarah Vaughan?s weekly ?birthday? parties, an excuse for the Sassy One to splash the cash and have some fun. (?What, Sarah Vaughan would sing with you and John Gilmore?? ?No way, Sarah didn?t sing, she was too busy partying.?) And in 1959, through Gilmore, he was invited to join Sun Ra?s Arkestra, at a crucial period in the evolution of that extraordinary group. Effortlessly wrapping traditions as divergent as boogie-woogie and electronica in an Afro-centric, intergalactic mythology of his own making, Sun Ra casts a huge shadow across conventional narratives of jazz history. ?With Sunny?, Cohran simply says, ?I found my own voice?.
You can hear the emergence of this voice on the LP Angels And Demons At Play, recorded in 1960 - Sun Ra?s masterpiece from the period. On the track Music From The World Tomorrow, against the urgent whipped and chopped percussion of the Arkestra, it is Cohran?s zither, initially bowed and then plucked and strummed, which is the track?s magic ingredient. More profoundly it was Sun Ra?s example ? his defiant self-confidence and sense of purpose ? that set Cohran on his own (to quote another Ra composition) ?pathway to unknown worlds?. Indeed this spirit of self-belief led Cohran to turn down the invitation to accompany the Arkestra when Sun Ra moved east in 1961.
Staying in Chicago, Cohran founded the Affro-Arts Theater and performed with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, recording the group for his own Zulu Records imprint. (Co-members went on to become Earth Wind & Fire, Cohran taught the group?s leader Maurice White the mysteries of the frankiphone). The AACM, a musicians? collective of immense influence and importance, had its first meeting in Cohran?s front room. With Oscar Brown Jr and Gene Page he wrote and performed in a show celebrating the nineteenth-century Afro-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. He taught music tirelessly in schools and prisons. His studies into music theory and history led him to the discovery of a key book in his life, Gioseffo Zarlino?s treatise on harmony, published in Venice in1558. Astronomy is another passion and another area of expertise. One of the gems of the Cohran discography is African Skies, with its lovely harp playing, commissioned by the Chicago Planetarium in 1993.
In Chicago he also raised a large family. Many of his children have gone on to become professional musicians, eight of them are the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. For each of them, their first teacher was their father, who famously insisted on giving them music lessons not just for several hours after school, but for several hours before school as well. Their father?s music was all around them as children, they all vividly remember lying in bed at night not being able to sleep because their father was rehearsing with the Jazz Workshop downstairs.
For the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the voyage to where they are now ? whether tearing up festivals from Glastonbury to Melbourne, or touring with Gorillaz, or recording their first album on Honest Jon?s ? has involved a necessary stepping away from their father?s shadow. Phil Cohran is the first to recognise this, happily allowing their sound ? heavy on the funk, with the urgency of hip hop never far away ? to blossom.
> But likewise this album is for all of them a natural step. Recorded in Chicago in June 2011, the idea was beautifully simple ? ?my music and their band? as Phil puts it, ?we don?t have to rattle on more than that?. Only to point out perhaps that here - in the majestic surge of Zincali, for instance, or in the sheer verve and bounce of Cuernevaca - is music not just filled with the warmth of home. This is music that plumbs the depths and rings with joy.
"Cuernevaca is a town in the mountains south of Mexico City. I was there in 1950 when I was on the road with Jay McShann's band. It's a place close to paradise, a city filled with the fragrance of flowers. I always wanted to go back? In 1974 I taught workshops at the prison in Stateville, the Big House where Al Capone spent time. There's a huge wall around the prison, and once I took Hypnotic there ? ha ? to see what the future holds for them... Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, sent a caravan of gifts to King Solomon ? a caravan that took more than a day to pass one point - and the main gifts were Frankincense And Myrrh... I wrote Apsara in 1967, when Jackie Kennedy was in the news with her visit to the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Apsara were celestial beings, dancers who brought forth the civilization of ancient Cambodia, by dancing in the holy nectar called Amrita? Ancestral is a meditation drone written for my Friday-night residence at the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant in Chicago's Rogers Park? Spin is the latest of these compositions. Everything in the cosmos spins, from the smallest objects we can see in a microscope to the largest galaxies. Spin is the motion of all things whether it looks like it or not? Zincali is a name Spanish gypsies call themselves. ?Zin?, East Africa, ?cali?, the people. One of the offshoots in my research into Moorish Spain has led me to Gioseffo Zarlino, the sixteenth-century master of music at St Mark?s in Venice. It?s said that Bach lost his sight reading Zarlino's treatise on counterpoint. His greatest composition is his setting of the Song of Songs ? ?Nigra Sum?, ?I am black?. This is my tribute to Zarlino and to the zincali."