Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Festival Tent, Halifax NS, July 5
Published Jul 06, 2014"He didn't get off the plane."
It has doubtlessly been a trying couple of days for the Halifax Jazz Festival. Friday night's Festival Tent headliner, the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Septet, cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. A Shai Maestro show on Saturday was waylaid by flight issues. Hurricane Arthur, which made landfall in Nova Scotia Saturday morning, produced such high winds that all the festival's daytime programming was cancelled, and for a while it looked like the evening's highly anticipated collaboration between Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble also might not happen.
So it was easy to appreciate the heartbreak and frustration in the voice of the Halifax Jazz Festival's artistic director as she took the stage to tell the crowd that Bey wouldn't be appearing with the Ensemble. The explanation was vague — "didn't get off the plane" could just as easily refer to immigration issues as some action on Bey's part — and suggested that whatever was happening, the situation was ongoing to an extent. "I'm still trying to make this happen," said the director, exasperated to the point of tears. "I've been trying to put this show together for eight months." (Weirdly, this now means that both members of Black Star have no-showed the Halifax Jazz Festival: Talib Kweli was supposed to perform with Idle Warship in 2011 but cancelled a few weeks beforehand.)
Festival moments like this offer a choice, to both organizers and spectators alike: does the show really still go on or not? Sure, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble were going to play without Bey, but was the experience going to feel like an afterthought? Would the crowd dwell on their disappointment? Frankly, I don't blame those audience members who immediately marched outside to the box office to get their refunds and express their (misplaced) frustrations at festival staff: at $42, this was the fest's most expensive ticket, and the marketing for the show somewhat egregiously overemphasized "MOS DEF" to the neglect of his collaborators in the Ensemble (not to mention his current name).
But the Ensemble are no second-rate ticket: they're a massive horn assault of a brass band who've collaborated with everyone from Damon Albarn to Prince, Erykah Badu to Ghostface Killah, Flea to Childish Gambino. Their song "War" is Stanley Tucci's walk-on music in The Hunger Games movies. The literal "band of brothers" — eight sons of jazz trumpeter Philip Cohran — are world renowned, and were more than up for the challenge of picking up a crowd that felt like it just had the wind knocked out of it.
With a sound akin to '70s TV theme songs — think high-energy, rapid-fire brass hits — the Ensemble promised the audience "jazz, soul, hip-hop, funk… a little something for everyone." The brothers bounced around the stage with abandon, prodding the crowd with time-honoured hip-hop cheer-offs and arm waving at every possible opportunity. The Ensemble's shirts started disappearing, one at a time, as the energy level kept rising. The enthusiasm was infectious, and songs like "Kryptonite" and "Party Started" sprawled into ten-minute dance parties. It may not have been enough to make us forget whose name was on the show's poster, but we don't ask performers in this sort of situation to accomplish miracles: we just want to believe, just for a little while, that we're where exactly where we're supposed to be.
At one point, just before performing a song called "Ménage," the Ensemble asked if there were any breakdancers in the house: "You wanna come and fuck with us for a song?" One Haligonian b-boy took up the challenge, twisting and turning on-stage and locking the crowd into a fevered groove that lasted through the rest of the evening. His name, fittingly, was Faith.