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Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar extends what Miles Davis started with "Bitches Brew."

The Sweet Funk
of Burnt Sugar

By Robin D. G. Kelley
SeeingBlack.com Cultural Critic

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If the history of music is a struggle for freedom, imagination, the liquidation of all barriers and boundaries, then the future is here. Greg Tate's latest project, "Burnt Sugar (The Arkestra Chamber)" is the big band of the new millenium. Flexing at times to over a dozen on the bandstand, "Burnt Sugar" is a kind of gypsy band of young musical masters (regulars and guests) who mess with all manner of electric and acoustic instruments—Michael Morgan Craft, Rene Akhan, Kirk Douglass, Vernon Reid among the electric guitarists, Nioka Workman working the cello, Suphala on tablas, drummers Swiss Criss and Qasim Naqvi, Vijay Iyer on piano, Bruce Mack synthesizing, bassists Jason di Matteo, Jared Nickerson, Maximina Juson, Lewis Flip Barnes on trumpet, Micah Gaugh on tenor, a flock of floutists including Atiba Wilson, Monet Dunham, Satch Hoyt, various vocalists—singers, poets, moaners and hummers—ranging from Justice X, Lisala Beatty, Eisa Davis, Shariff Simmons, to Latasha Natasha Diggs, and DJ Mutamassik on the "wheels of steel," and still too many music-makers to mention.

Burnt Sugar is Tate's extension of "Bitches Brew," what we might call his homage to Miles Davis. And he is committed to building on what Miles started in the late 1960s—groove-based, funky, free improvisation rooted in a true musical conversation rather than a dozen cats all talking at once. Tate, who plays guitar but primarily occupies the conductor's spot, moves his musicians in and out of the groove in the manner of a DJ. What the artists bring to the groove, however, is improvised, generating fresh spontaneous responses from other instrumentalists/voices as well as from Tate himself.

We can hear the process so clearly on "Sirens of Triton" from Burnt Sugar's debut album, Blood on the Leaf (2001). After calling for Vijay Iyer's spare, funky acoustic piano solo, Tate gradually surrounds him with rich, thick textures from electric guitars, synthesizer, and electronic and acoustic percussion. "Gnawalickenlallibella" opens in 6/4 time with Iyer's steady arppegios overlaid with "choked" staccato lines from electric guitar and synthesizer, giving the song the feel of needle on vinyl. Three minutes later here comes Swiss Chris banging out drum n' bass beats, until Tate moves the band into another mode where the guitars sound like sitars playing scales reminiscent of an Indian raga. The amazing thing about Tate's concept is the way it draws on aesthetics of sampling and yet it is completely improvised instrumental music.

Burnt Sugar's follow-up 3-CD release, That Depends on What You Know, has really thrown a wrench into the increasingly calcified "jazz canon." "Two Bass Blipsch" from disc 1 (an obvious reference to John Lewis and Dizzy Gillespie's "Two Bass Hit") opens with Vijay Iyer playing the piano strings with such rhythmic precision that it sounds like it's been "looped"; once Tate brings the drums in percussion becomes the improvisational driving force. While everything is improvised, Tate uses conduction to create particular conversations and dialogues, as in the way he brings out Eisa Davis's voice interpolating triplet figures.

The masterpiece in all this innovative music is their thirty-eight minute "Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite." Built on a repeated North African-sounding chant that is "remixed" or rather "reconducted" several times over in different rhythms, tempos, instrumentation, it too is completely improvised while conveying a kind of turntablist texture or sensibility. Tate understands that rhythm is everything, it's the lifeblood of the music; it's the rhythm that drives the entire suite. Part III, for example, is an exciting contrapuntal marriage between drum n' bass rhythms, piano obligato, Vernon Reid's monster solo, nicely interrupted by a bass line that travels from the Dirty Dozens brass band to old school (read: Negro) 50s Rock and Roll to heavy funk to heavier metal. Segue into Part IV, a dense funk groove with a lot of conduction going on. As a result, we hear in the final section of the suite what Miles always tried to achieve when he told his band members to improvise by asking a question and then answering it.

We also hear something else: that sampled music and computer programs will never replace live musicians playing tonal instruments, for the spontaneity, experimentation, imagination, and the wonderful mistakes improvisation generates can never be replaced. New technology can certainly enrich possibilities for new modes of improvisation, and it has already shaped the way musicians with open ears have approached improvisation. But there's no substitute for the raw, natural smell of burnt sugar.

-- August 29, 2002

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