Burnt Sugar Applying Heat for 20 Years


Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber is marking two decades of music with a new album and a spate of reissues.

(Photo: Marco Floris)

As any well-informed chef will tell you, particularly one schooled in Caribbean cuisine, burnt sugar is not actually burnt. And when making it, you have be careful not to overcook it. Like the foodstuff, its musical counterpart, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, concocts its performances and recordings with just the right amount of heat.

The group’s been simmering for 20 years, and during that period, members proudly confess to never playing anything the same way twice. Given its disparate parts, sonic directions, and political and cultural creativity, a highly flexible thesaurus is necessary to define who they are, what they do and where they are at any given moment.

When guitarist, writer and conductor Greg Tate—who along with bassist Jared Michael Nickerson founded the Arkestra—was asked about the ensemble’s emergence, he cited a pantheon of influences: “We envisioned ourselves as attempting a continuation of the improvisational ‘freedom swing’ legacies laid down by Sun Ra, Miles Davis, AACM, P-Funk and Butch Morris.” He said they sought “the creation of a large ensemble situation that privileged adventurous experimentation and expansive improvisation across genres of Great Black Music.”

Imagine listening to fragments of Bitches Brew with a dollop of Jimi Hendrix and a heaping wallop of Afrofuturistic esoteric rambunctiousness, and you have the culmination of “20 Years Of Avant Groiddnuss.”

In effect, Tate said, “We are committed to the idea of a conducted improv big band—one that deploys elements of our mentor Butch Morris’ patented conduction system to generate innovative new material from scratch, start to finish, onstage and in the studio.”

After actor and director Melvin Van Peebles sought the group’s assistance for the premiere of his Sweet Sweetback, The Hood Opera, Burnt Sugar’s purview stretched from concert stages to the theater.

The Hood Opera was a musical theater version [of his film] that Melvin produced and directed for a Paris premiere with Burnt Sugar and 15 actors,” Tate explained. “On May 30, we’ll be live scoring a screening of the original 1971 film at Town Hall [in New York] that will include some songs Melvin created especially for The Hood Opera which are not in the 1971 film version.”

In addition to tackling music theater, the group—its membership fluctuating between eight and 15—has made a habit of presenting repertory concerts based on the work of legends like Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, David Bowie, Rick James and Fleetwood Mac. Summarizing the band’s multifaceted existence, Tate said, “Burnt Sugar makes music that seamlessly blends then explodes the past, present and future of musical forms and genres, electronic, digital and acoustic.” And much of this transpires on its 20th anniversary release, a three-volume mixtape series, Groiddest Schiznits, on the group’s Avant Groidd Musica label. Also marking the anniversary is Over Wakanda, an album issued earlier this year comprising new material, and the rerelease of 2001’s That Depends On What You Know.

As for Burnt Sugar’s longevity, co-founder Nickerson said, “20 years ... unbelievable and astonishing that I’ve been in one band for so long. But being able to look back throughout the years allows me to recognize that although it’s been a marathon and a grind at times, it’s also felt like a sprint, ’cause I’ve so enjoyed the journey and find myself ‘fresh’ and ready for more.” DB

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