This is Not a Jazz Band

photo by Julia Dratel

photo by Julia Dratel

After a blistering, nineteen-minute-long jam, during which the eighty-six year-old musician switched between a bowed violin-uke, an acoustic harp, a trumpet, and an instrument of his own invention–an electrified thumb piano that he calls a “sun harp”–Kelan Phil Cohran finally addressed his audience. “We opened up with that piece…so that you would not think that this is a jazz band.”

It was true. In his performances this past month at Hyde Park Records and the UofC Arts Incubator, Cohran appeared less like a jazz musician and more like a spiritual guru, using instruments as the means of practicing a form of deep meditation. Cohran’s music is characterized by intense, trance-like improvisation built over looped, repetitive riffs and rhythmic figures. Cohran’s chops are superb, though sometimes the music falters; his concentration breaks, and the trance ends. But Cohran never appears to mind. When whatever instrument he’s been playing wears out its use, its magic, he just puts it down, picks up another, and the trance begins again. “You only really get what you want out of the instrument about one out of seven times,” he explained.

Cohran has been perfecting this form of ritualistic performance for the past five decades. During the late 50s, he made his name as a trumpet player in Sun Ra’s legendary avant-garde group “Arkestra,” which Cohran claims coined the phrase “space age” before Sputnik’s launch brought it into vogue. Yet “spaciness,” for Cohran and Sun Ra, was never to be equated with laziness or absent-mindedness. Cohran speaks of his years playing with “Sunny” as a musical boot camp which required “practicing for six hours a day, playing for six hours a night.”

photo by Julia Dratel

photo by Julia Dratel

“I thought I was playing [music] before then,” Cohran reminisced. “I had been to the Naval Academy, I played in the Lincoln Youth Symphony…so I thought I was hot stuff…[but] Sunny knocked the borders down that had been placed in my head.”

Ever since his residency with Arkestra, Cohran has dedicated his own time to knocking down the borders for other musicians. He co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago area non-profit group dedicated to the promotion of experimental music. His passion for genre-defying music has also been passed on to his children. Eight of his sons play together as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a versatile horn group known for blending hip-hop, funk, rock, and big band music, and backing a wide range of musical acts from the Wu-Tang Clan to Prince.

One of his sons, Malik Cohran, showed up to the March 16 Hyde Park Records performance to accompany his father on electric bass and synthesizer. The elder Cohran was also joined by his pupil and cosmic diva-in-training, Fanta Celah. Celah, whose name means “meditate at dawn by the clear waters,” cuts a striking figure as she sits stoically beside Cohran, her hair done up in thick, twisted braids that look like an afrofuturist take on the Princess Leia ‘do. She describes herself as “synchronistically aligned with Phil Cohran’s music and teachings.”

During his performances, Cohran spent nearly as much time engaging in a dialogue with his audience as he did playing music. Among the esoteric subjects covered were the study of cosmology, the use of black dialect in schools, the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the consequences of Chicago World’s Fair, the virtues of a vegetarian diet, the metaphysical implications of capillary action, the beneficence of the monarchs of Ancient Ethiopia, and the superiority of velvet over all other fabrics.

The unifying point of Cohran’s philosophy, however, is ultimately one of radical inner spirituality. “We spend our time dealing with the outer self, trying to match up with society. You gotta dress a certain way, you gotta talk a certain way…[When] everything is specified, where is the individuality?”

Rather than taking influence from the homogeneity of the present, Cohran seeks out more personal inspiration. “I realized that I am eternal,” he said, explaining the inspiration behind his songs. “I have ancestors who are expressed through me every day.”

Yet despite the wide range of times, places, and dimensions which Cohran’s performances touch upon, the elderly man sees himself as a rather simple person. He sees his entire career in terms of a single decision he made fifty years ago. “I decided I would never work a job, and I would just play music because,” Cohran said, smiling “I could not do two things at once.”