Lucid Culture


Concert Review: The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and McCollough Sons of Thunder at Aaron Davis Hall, NYC 3/19/09

The opening act are something of a feel-good story, sons of former Sun Ra trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran keeping it in the family with some richly good tunes. To call the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble innovative is an understatement: there is no band in the world who sound like them. Blending elements of New Orleans marches, late 60s Hugh Masekela-style Afropop, hip-hop and, predictably, some of the more accessible side of the man from Saturn, their instrumentals manage to be as hypnotic as they are catchy and propulsive. With four trumpets, two trombones, tuba and French horn, they made it clear that they were there to bring the party and managed to energize a pretty lethargic, afterwork and after-daycare crowd. They opened with the slightly reggae-inflected Balicky Bon (a nonsense onomatopeic word that pretty much describes the rhythm) set to a catchy three-chord descending progression. The intensity in this band is tightly wound within the grooves of the music: blaring, ostentatious soloing, or for that matter much of any soloing at all is never part of the picture.


The predictably fast Fire kicked off with the tuba laying down a fat, melodic bassline, the arrangement beginning staccato and building to a big swell. Sankofa, a co-write with Fela’s drummer, brought “a little taste of Afropop,” as the band described it, one of the trumpets taking a mischievous solo mixing the feel of early 80s hip-hop feel with echoes of the Middle East. They brought back the vintage hip-hop feel on an impossibly catchy, riff-driven number: hip-hop artists in need of first-class samples need look no further than this group. They closed their surprisingly short set (they have four albums out) with a long party chant-along, one of the trombonists leading the crowd, eventually sticking his mic inside the tuba for a big blast of bass. If you’re lucky, you might catch the group playing above the downtown 6 train platform at Union Square, where they’ve been spotted on the occasional Sunday evening around six.


The aptly named McCollough Sons of Thunder headlined. Before the show got going, Elder Edward Babb, their charismatic, trombone-slinging frontman cautioned the crowd that this would be just a taste of what life was like on Sundays at their home base, Harlem’s United House of Prayer. From the first rising notes of a slow gospel vamp that went doublespeed in seconds flat, it was delirious, loosely orchestrated mayhem. Unlike the openers, they didn’t have amplification, but with seven trombones, tuba, trumpet, what looked like a sousaphone and a four-piece percussion section of bass drum, snare, cymbals (played by the group’s lone woman member) and tambourine, amplification wasn’t exactly necessary. The bass drum kept scooching across the floor of the stage. The second-chair trombonist came to the point where he slithered across the stage on his knees, so overcome by the music that he lost his place and had to take a breather. Babb worked the crowd as the band roared behind him, vamping on a single chord for minutes on end but switching into a chorus with seeming effortlessness when given the signal – this is a group that seems to get plenty of practice. Is God real? Yes, affirmed the crowd. Can I get a witness? Babb inquired with casual fervor; dozens of volunteers jumped from their seats. One impassioned concertgoer stood up, went to the aisle to the right of the stage and sang along in a voice so strong that it was as if he was onstage with the rest of the performers. Pandemonium reigned and everybody was happy.


This was one of many free “community concerts” that Carnegie Hall has been putting on across the five boroughs for the last several months; a complete list of upcoming concerts is here.

March 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yard Party Uptown, Mon: Ernest Ranglin and Others in Concert in NYC 2/26/09

The party vibe was strong at this one-off concert put together by Jamaican historian Herbie Miller for Harlem Stage at Aaron Davis Hall. It was an oldschool massive, and it was as if everybody pretty much knew everybody else, friends of the seven musicians shouting out to their countrymen and getting a shout back from the stage. A strong case could be made for the contention that for the past several decades, no other country has had more talented musicians per square mile than little Jamaica, and this casual yet dazzling display of three generations of island jazz talent only bolstered that argument. Serving as bandleader was iconic, ageless guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who in his six-decade career has played with just about every legendary Jamaican musician in calypso, jazz, ska and reggae. Former Sun Ra sideman Cedric “Im” Brooks and Douglas Ewart on sax joined in representing the older generation, with pianist Orville Hammond and longtime Gil Scott-Heron percussionist Larry McDonald filling in the middle and a young-gun rhythm section of Wayne Batchelor on bass and frequent Jimmy Cliff and Monty Alexander sideman Desmond Jones on drums. Running through a set heavily stacked with old mento standards, the group were loose and conversational but buckled down when they had to, with often exhilarating results.


Jazz from Jamaica tends to be especially melodically oriented, and tonight it was Hammond holding it down with the rhythm section pushing along on the basic, soul- or blues-based changes. Often Brooks would ham it up, opening the set with an amusing if ill-advised turn on vocals, serving as a foil to Ranglin’s counterintuitive sophistication. Now 76, Ranglin has never played better: given a chance to take center stage, he chose his spots and then wailed through some strikingly intense, even piercing solos, generally eschewing the fluttery Les Paul-inflected chordal style that’s been his trademark for so long. Hammond had fewer chances to cut loose, but made the best of them, bringing a masterfully eerie noir lounge touch to the few minor-key songs in the set. Brooks and Ewart were remarkably similar, each showing off a soulful, slowly crescendoing, thoughtful style that gave their cohorts ample opportunity to contribute or, in the case of Ranglin, echo and bend a phrase into a completely unexpected shape.


At their most boisterous, Jones would get out from behind his kit and pummel a big bass drum, McDonald coming over from his congas, joined by both Ewart and Brooks, creating a free-for-all that would eventually drown out the rest of the band. There were also a couple of perhaps expected, perhaps surprise special guests, namely a couple of older gentlemen who took the stage in front of the band and got the crowd roaring with their impressively agile dance moves while the security guards looked on bemusedly from the edge of the stage. Before the encore, Miller explained to the crowd that they had been ripping up the yard since way back in the day. And then the less frenetic of the two grabbed the mic and indulged in a long exhortation to the Rastas in the crowd, ending with a fervent suggestion to read Isaiah, Chapter 43 (a passage which doesn’t make much sense other than to say that God will mess with you if you don’t behave). And nobody stopped him or shut off the mic: no problem, mon. For about an hour and a half, it was like being in Montego Bay – or Ogetnom, as one of the night’s most beautifully haunting numbers was playfully titled. 

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment