“Pan-African conducted improv at its loopiest...”
BURNT SUGAR is a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.
A veritable, venerable, inevitable supergroup. An orchestra of severe proportions.
LiveWired Music brings you the thirteenth Burnt Sugar album, heading into their 10th anniversary year, a cauldron of delights: "Making Love to the Dark Ages." This collection represents the totality of the group, the symphonic "face" of a musical organization that continually morphs.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber began as a grand and noble idea that begat a quite foolhardy enterprise - update Miles Davis Bitches Brew for the 21st century with players who were conversant in a plethora of post-modern musical tongues. What it has become since then is one of the few modern music groups to freely mash- up any and all forms of vocal and instrumental music like it ain’t nobody’s business if they do. Burnt Sugar got the nerve to claim Morton Feldman, Brian Eno and Steve Reich as progenitors alongside Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix and Vladislav Delay.
Their player-ranks have been known to include devotees of Steve Lacy and Steve Coleman, Irish fiddlers, AACM refugees, Afropunk rockers, staunch beboppers, feminist hiphoppers, doowoppers, funkateers and rodeo stars of the digital divide. Just as Bitches Brew combined acoustic and electric improvisers with electronic manipulation, Burnt Sugar bridges the gap between digital music making and live, orchestral performance. From the outset the concept was to combine the Bitches Brew approach with an adaptation of Butch Morris’ ground breaking Conduction System for Improvisers which utilizes over 25 hand and baton gestures to rearrange and compose symphonic, trans-genre suites of music in real time. The band’s cheeky motto quickly became ‘We Never Play Anything The Same Way Once’ and for the next 9 years of recording and performing they never tried to live that artistic ideal down.
In 1999 the band’s founding members gathered in a Hell’s Kitchen rehearsal studio to explore the possibilities of this conceit at Greg Tate’s behest. After a few weeks of jamming the band made its debut at the legendary CBGBs. The band at that time consisted of Vijay Iyer and Bruce Mack on keyboards, Rene Akan, Morgan Craft and Kirk Douglas (now with The Roots) on guitars, Jared Nickerson and Jason Di Matteo on electric and acoustic bass, Swiss Chris and Qasim Naqvi on drums, vocalist Eisa Davis and violinist Simi. In December of that year the nascent band recorded the groups first album, Blood On The Leaf - first of 12 on their own truGROID imprint.
About that recording Rolling Stone’s David Fricke said: “A multiracial jam army that freestyles with cool telekinesis between the lustrous menace of Miles Davis’ On The Corner, the slash-and-om of 1970s King Crimson, and Jimi Hendrix’ moonwalk across side three of Electric Ladyland.” While The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote: “Its electric Miles with soul, Maggot Brain with a PHD, the Hendrix Evans band of dreams, the underwater funk some hear in A.R. Kane.” In the UK publication The Wire, critic Hua Hsu had this to say: “Guitarists Rene Akan, Morgan Michael Craft and Kirk Douglas manage to sound massive, yet patient: not at all how you’d imagine a three guitar cockfight. At times there is a corrosive edge to their playing, the way the little ripples of funk rage along the periphery. Similar to the way Eddie Hazel bubbled and scraped his way through “Maggot Brain” (another important reference here), the trio occupy sonic space without dominating it. Vijay Iyer’s versatile ivory skills approximate violence one moment, pristine beauty the next, and the occasional cello contributes a surreal lushness.” In 2000 the group began sessions for their epic three-disc sophomore release That Depends On What You Know made up of the discs Fubractive Since Antiquity, The Crepescalarium and The Sirens Return. By that time, the band had come to include trumpeter Lewis Flip Barnes, percussionist Tia Nicole Leak, saxophonist Micah Gaugh, flautist Satch Hoyt, cellist Julia Kent, vocalists Lisala Beatty and Justice Dilla-X. Upon the triple albums release in late 2001 they were once again showered with kudos from the press and showed their versatility with compelling and inventive renditions of material originally recorded by Thelonious Monk, Chaka Khan, Jimi Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield.
2000 was also when Burnt Sugar performed at a 12 hour Miles Davis tribute concert at Symphony Space which won them these kudos from The New York Times’ Ann Powers. “The sharp display of talent at Symphony Space’s Wall To Wall Miles tribute was complimented by Burnt Sugar’s expansive freeleaning set. Led by Gregory Tate, this enormous band incorporated whispered vocals, whistling, dulcimer, and more, held together by the funky bass playing of Jared Michael Nickerson.” In 2002 they were invited to collaborate with choreographer Gabri Christa on a dance-adaptation of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring which would have its premiere at Central Park Summerstage that summer. That occasion also marked Butch Morris first appearance with the band that had been making informal use of his conduction system for improvisers.
In 2002 the band received a prestigious $75,000.00 touring grant from Art International, a prestigious award given that year in music only to Burnt Sugar and the innovative American string quartet, Ethel. With these resources at their disposal the group would tour England, Spain, France and The Netherlands, over the next three years. They would also in this period record their most ambitious project to date, The Rites, a collaboration with Tate’s conducting mentor Butch Morris, former Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey and bassist extraordinaire Melvin Gibbs. The formidable turntablist Pan-Arabic DJ Mutamassik also joined the band for this special album, as did violinist Mazz Swift and cellist Okkyung Lee. Artist, musician and turntablist Christian Marclay declared it one of the year’s ten best for 2002 in Artforum. Burnt Sugar’s next studio recording, the double CD, Black Sex Yall Liberation And Bloody Random Violets dropped in 2004. It featured the band debut of the brilliant alto saxophonist Matana Roberts and virtuoso tenorman Petre Radu-Scafaru. It was quickly followed in 2005 by Not April In Paris, their first live album, taken from a completely improvised 80 minute concert they did in Paris the year before.
At the beginning of 2006 they put out another live set, If You Cant Dazzle Them With Your Brilliance Then Baffle Them With Your Blisluth from shows in Bordeaux, San Sebastien Spain and at New York’s Tonic and at the legendary Vision Festival. Hot on its heels in the spring came the double CD set, More Than Posthuman - Rise Of The Mojosexual Cotillion, a more vocal, lyric and dance-oriented album than their previous ones. The band closed out its 2006 recording glut with Chopped And Screwed Volume2 - Rarities, Remixes, Out Takes And Conductions, a strange brew of material culled from remanipulations of More Than Posthuman, newly minted collabs with Butch Morris and laptop music Tate scored for his sci-fi film project Black Body Radiation ( a 40 minute narrative feature about a future New York populated by various Muslim sects and mystic-extraterrestials.)
Tapped by the Black Rock Coalition to organize a tribute concert to progressive Black popular composers for Lincoln Center’s Out of Door’s festival, Burnt Sugar staged a concert that featured over 30 singers and musicians performing provocative live remixes of songs by Grace Jones, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Parliament-Funkadelic, Arthur Lee and Love, Prince, Slave, Living Colour and the Wu Tang Clan. The fall of 2006 found Burnt Sugar getting busy all over-- a week-long residency at the University of Dayton in Ohio, a show at The Arab American Institute in Detroit, a throwdown at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center (for the 3rd time!) capped off by an appearance New York’s fabled City College for the First Annual Upsouth Black Literary Festival.
Late 2006 was also when Burnt Sugar made their debut at Finland’s Tampere Jazz Festival and received some of the most effusive critical raves of its 10-year career. “Surprisingly, the most interesting visitor from the other side of the Atlantic turned out to be the 15-membered Burnt Sugar which, with its two vocalist virtuosos, is not easy to describe. This post-everything fusion orchestra offered depth and surprises, and luckily most of the notions did not get lost in the big mass of sound.” ~ Mikko Majander / Uutispa¨iva¨ Demari “The 15-membered Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber from New York, founded by the young Greg Tate, must be elevated to the big band elite. The sparkling sounds, with a strong, dark rhythm, crowned the concert of the Sunday afternoon.” ~ Jouko Huru / Kansan Uutiset "The conductor Gregory Tate and Burnt Sugar demonstrated what kind of heights the ‘Conducted Composition’ technique, developed by Butch Morris, might reach at its best. Music’s history is full of great explorers such as Morris, Rameau and Scho¨nberg, who are not able to make their own discoveries swing like their best followers do. But like Rameau had his Bach and Scho¨nberg had Berg, so has Morris now his Tate.” ~ Jari-Pekka Vuorela / Aamulehti
2008 has been a blowout busy year for Burnt Sugar--two sellout nights at 'The Kitchen', an SRO performance at Paris' Son D'Hiver festival, another dance score for Gabri Christa, a live film score presentation at Lincoln Center of legendary indie black film godfather Oscar Micheaux's 1927 silent feature 'Within Our Gates', various Harlem events including a summerlicious Band of Gypsys Block Party. Recent gigs have also featured guest appearances by hometown heroes Vernon Reid and Maya Azucena alongside the ever-evolving Burnt Sugar massive which now includes 4 guitars, 4 horns, 4 vocals, 6 turtle doves and The Partridge Family hung in effigy from a pear tree.
"Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.... To quote Arthur Jafa, we don't strive to be original, but aboriginal.... One foot in the prehistoric, the other in the post human. In this journey, you're the journal and we're the journalists. Houston, do you read and whatnot." - Greg Tate