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Either by car or on foot, the traffic around Union Square coagulates constantly. On the southwest corner of the square, street vendors jostle for cement: roasted nuts, homemade incense, sliced mango. Somewhere between the gent hawking a miraculous vegetable peeler and the strange guy with a toy mouse skittering over his hands, an extended brass band sets up, clad in baggy denim, low-slung Yankees caps, and black hoodies, immediately drawing a crowd around them and effectively blocking the sidewalk.
As the battery of trumpets and trombones (along with a sousaphone) blasts out over the hiss of the 14A buses and the skronks of passing taxis, you're suddenly at an impromptu performance of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a group as migratory and hard to capture as the Windy City they hail from. In the mix, there's hip-hop's root-down, the drive of prime-era funk, and the sumptuous strut of r&b, with dashes of Afropop, soul, and post-bop jazz in the charting and voicing of the horns. Those who gather at the corner can hear what they like in the music. And plenty gather on a sunny weekday afternoon.
"Union Square is definitely a spot where New York City loves to see us," 23-year-old trumpeter Tariq Graves (a/k/a Smoove) tells me when I call him at the group's (since-abandoned) Hypnotic House out in Ozone Park, Queens. When Tariq and his six brothers (who go by the nicknames Hudah, June Baji, Jafar Baji, El Cid, Clef, and L.T.) relocated here from Chicago in 2005, they immediately took their music to the streets rather than the clubs, hitting prime corners in Manhattan, from Union Square to Washington Square to Times Square to Columbus Circle. "Everywhere else, you pretty much get hassled by the police," Tariq explains. "They stop us a lot, 'cept for those spots."
The brothers (drummer Christopher Anderson is the only non-blood kin in the band) are the progeny of revered jazz trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran. A one-time member of space-jazz monolith Sun Ra's Arkestra, Cohran also spearheaded his own underappreciated but crucial groups in the '60s, like Artistic Heritage Ensemble. By the time Tariq was born (Cohran fathered 15 sons and 7 daughters), he missed his father's musical heyday playing with the Pharoahs (who would go on to acclaim as Earth, Wind and Fire), but the music lessons were instilled nevertheless. "[Playing music] is what we were born to do," Tariq says. "Our parents brought us up doing it, and they told us, 'This is what you're going to be doing when you get older.' This is not just our plan, it was also our parents'."
Hypnotic has caught ears out on these streets. They've backed rappers from Ghostface to Mike Jones, but their most ardent fan so far has been Brooklyn-born rapper Mos Def. "[Mos] was out in Times Square," Tariq recounts. "On top of a truck, laughin', doin' what he do best, flowin', just doin' it for the people, for the love." Such a stunt was quickly dampened when the police wrote him up, but a return to the scene of the crime brought Hypnotic's music to Def's ears. "He was really feelin' us, cuz the police wasn't bothering uswe had a license for the spot," Tariq continues. "It's been cool ever since." In fact, at BAM's recent Brooklyn Next Festival, Hypnotic backed Mos Def as he dipped into his own catalog as well as that of Bell Biv Devoe, Chick Corea, and Neil Young.
Open-minded about their music, the group furthers the teachings of their father, echoing his message and bringing something substantial to their street sound, though Hypnotic prefer a more teasing approach. Tariq laughs as he explains their guerrilla approach to live shows: "We like to make your mouth water . . . give it to you in bits and pieces at a time, so you'll want more."