Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber turns music inside out. Bandleader Greg Tate “plays the band” using a technique called conduction, which gets its name from the field of physics, and which was developed by jazz conductor Butch Morris. In Tate’s hands, Burnt Sugar combines sounds together with a funky twist, snagging idiomatic metaphors from film editing techniques and hip hop culture. When the band plays live, they often do so with little more than a concept or melody in mind, drawing upon the moods and energy in the room, ending in a one-time composition that could not have been predicted nor repeated. Their new album, Making Love to the Dark Ages (LiveWired Music, released March 17, 2009), presents the band in its largest format, and draws on their signature group improvisation as well as tapping into studio recording techniques.
Conduction is a series of gestures, baton twirls, eye contact, and facial expressions that are used to communicate directions to the band. With these, the bandleader can change the melodic and harmonic structure, repeat a juicy riff by a soloist (and then have the rest of the band repeat the riff as well), or flip the rhythmic undercurrent from hard-hitting funk to a Latin swing—all at the drop of a baton. The sound is so tight, audiences often don’t believe that the piece wasn’t already composed that way. “The thing about conduction is a zeitgeist element, it’s the most democratic music around,” says Tate. “It’s the one format where you can take people who play in any musical tradition, any style, any era, any instrument, any approach, whether acoustic, analog, or digital… People from different backgrounds, or different ethnicities, and you can put them onstage; never met before, never played together before. But as soon as they learn the cues from conduction, they sound fully united.”
And that unity sounds like thiebo djinn – tangy Senegalese fish and vegetables with ribsticking red rice - for the music lover’s soul. Tate uses a fraction of the 26 gestures from Morris’ original conduction system. Of these, Panning comes from the film term and it involves the conductor moving his baton across the band in left to right motion. While the baton is crossing you, you make some noise. Or in negative panning, you stop making some noise. When the conductor gives this signal, he may bracket out a whole section of musicians and have them stop playing. Graphic is set in motion when Tate taps his forehead with the baton. The band follows him by imitating his movements in the air; the air becomes like an imaginary staff paper. Higher means higher register notes, low means lower; and the conductor can be very specific with it, using not only the baton, but the evil eye, verbal cues, and even hollers. Sustain is cued by palms out, and means that Tate wants one continuous sound from the band. Repeat (which looks like the OK sign) invokes technology used in electronica, allowing the conductor to create loops. Tate can even “cut and paste” a melody or rhythm from one part of the band to another. All of this is done on the fly.
You can’t rush red rice. What’s tasty in this music is the way it all shakes down, the process of getting to the result of a combination of rich sounds. It recollects a bit of the old world spices, like call and response, and audience participation and interaction. For Burnt Sugar, call and response plays out both between conductor and musicians, and between musicians and spectators exchanging riffs and variations. In a live performance, how the audience responds to the garlic and onions is every bit as crucial as how much pepper the cook likes. These are combined with some new world ingredients; the negative panning, for example is much like the “break” in house music, the layering and undoing of certain sounds usually only available with electronically manipulated wizardry emerges here in a live improvised performance. The result, of course, is unpredictable, with such a wide ranging palette available to the conductor-chef at any given moment. But the latest recording is a testament to the music’s leaning towards more sweet than burnt with a dash of rich and salty.
The title track “Making Love to the Dark Ages” emulates from Tate’s response to the Republican roost of the last eight years, which has for many worldwide meant a time of darkness, selfishness, and potential for such atrocities as the torture at Abu Ghraib. Tate draws attention to the reality that society’s response as a whole can be Internet escapism, detachment and disassociation from such abominable suffering. But in the end, the music communicates that, despite such darkness, here we are still trying to have humane civilized relationships.
“Chains and Water” is indicative of how the band works in the studio, using everything at its disposal. It starts with a piece of source material performed as a duet then developed by 20 musicians in the same room over 25 minutes of freestyle conduction, in 15 minutes or so. After the initial recording, he may add in some cayenne or basil to season up the sound and then top it off by “manipulating the hell out of our original sonic soul stew until it blends together.” The meaning of this cut has deep implications, and Tate makes it clear that while he has ideas coming into the project, he recognizes that people will taste their own flavors. The piece was inspired by the middle passage of slaves from Africa to America, the echoes and reverberations of those ancestors in their experiences. “People find their own interpretation. It goes through a kaleidoscopic range of music approaches, you hear jazz, you hear drum and bass stuff in there, noise sounds, metal sounds, a heavenly choir that moves in and out. And then it goes through this slow descent at the end. You start out in tragedy, wind up in some place pastoral and romantic, then via that tune's jam session coda speak to the resiliency and wit of those who survived the violence and trauma of the slaveships to create African American culture.
The journey is primary to the destination. You can’t rush the djinn. Harkening also to African communal life, each musician has a role to play in the creation journey. Among them, some are clearly ‘core’ members, playing certain characters. At the root is Jared Michael Nickerson, electric bassist and Co-Organizer, the juicy palm oil within which all the flavors dance. Rene Akan, on guitar, is the trickster, bringing a rebel randomness to the sound. He can at one moment throw out the most amazing lyrical dub guitar sounds, and in the next evoke unknown sounds from a trio of digital pedals. “Moist” Paula Henderson plays the baritone saxophone, but she’s not playing the standard jazz licks. Instead she expresses something sardonically femme fatale through her axe. By contrast trumpeter Lewis 'Flip' Barnes brings the whole history of jazz in through his horn, maintaining the band's palpable connection to swing and free jazz. Upright bassist Jason DiMatteo follows this same historic-meets-innovation spirit on the low end. The dark and stormy textures of synthesist Bruce Mack are also fundamental to the Burnt Sugar sound. Vocalists Justice Dilla-X and Lisala Beatty are ingenious recombinators of soul tradition and avant-garde daring.
Guest artist Vijay Iyer is the musical cooling agent on the piano. His sensibility brings a poetic musical sanity to the proceedings. “He’s so good, his listening is audible,” claims Tate. “You can tell by the choices he is making, that he is hearing everything going on around him. He gives whatever the music needs, like an incredibly composed center of gravity.” Among the most well known is Vernon Reid (Living Colour/Defunkt), who co-founded The Black Rock Coalition with Tate in the 1980s. Reid is known to show up on the fly for gigs when he’s in town. This band works, because, like a traditional village, each band member is playing a very specific role. Not everyone can be the chef, or the mother, or the water carrier. Each member adopts a character, which creates the band.
The album speaks for itself: a tasty mix of history and contemporary. A spicy blend of jazz, improv, innovation and composition. A cornucopia of sound embedded in the process of creativity: hot, sweet, and a little burnt on the edges.
What’s in a Saucy Name: Sun Ra, Wu Tang, and Burning Plantations
When he was a kid, bandleader Greg Tate’s favorite color in the Crayola box was burnt sienna. Later, he thought about the allusions of Burnt Sugar, including the idea of a “really saucy woman with a bad attitude” and the image of lynching and castration. He was also compelled by a striking scene from the Marlon Brando feature Burn, set in Cuba during slavery, where the rebels rise up and burn the sugar fields to the ground.
The Arkestra Chamber connects with different generations of audiences; borrowing from the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, and from the Wu Tang Clan’s “Return to the 36 Chambers.” According to Tate, “I wanted to conflate those two mystical generations. Both are in the tradition of mystic composers. Their sound comes from these ideas about science and art and philosophy and spirituality. As a listener to both of them, you feel like the metaphysics are as important as the music; they’re kind of interwoven, and I wanted to allude to both of them.” Tate acknowledges that among the musicians he is working with today, some are influenced by instrumental improvisers like Sun Ra and Miles Davis, while others are influenced by improvisation through samplers and turntables. The name Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber is meant to represent this multi-platform voice, to recognize the lineage of different traditions represented at the table.