20 Years of Burnt Sugar
On Thursday, January 10, at the David Rubenstein Atrium, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber celebrates two decades of "never playing anything the same way once." Founder (and acclaimed writer and cultural critic) Greg Tate offers his thoughts on "20 Years of Avant Groiddnuss."
Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany have both said they write books they want to read but cannot find. The creation of Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber was based on attempting to address a similar absence in 1999. Another part of the process derived from being an inveterate reader of the British music magazine MOJO. A regular feature queries famous musicians about their favorite records—favorite Saturday night music, favorite Sunday morning music, favorite album of all time. Remember being flabbergasted that Ike Turner and Bootsy Collins gave the same answer: Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. Came to find out this was also the case for a couple of other funky brothers I know with very eclectic tastes. Rumors was not that album for this reporter but when I posed the question to myself and let the answer float up out of my subconscious without premeditation it turned out to be Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. Which was fascinating. I would never have told you that was my favorite Miles album (Nefertiti) or even the Electric Miles album I loved the most (Dark Magus) or one of the Miles albums I've been the most emotionally touched by (Porgy and Bess, My Funny Valentine, In a Silent Way).
But Bitches Brew appeals to the part of the mind that's deeply moved by Big Ideas and Monstrous Concepts. Bitches Brew is a meta-album, more epic and more mysterious than the sum of its moving parts, just like the work of certain Abstract painters we love—Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Frank Bowling—or the visionary minimalist sculpture of Richard Serra, Fred Eversley, Lonnie Holley, Donald Judd. Miles plays magnificent horn on the album but the point isn't the bitch at the core of de ting but the brewing or what Frank Zappa would identify as the music's cosmic debris. Back in 1999 not too many groups seemed to be making improvised experimental music with loud guitars and other electronic instruments that sounded as expansive, liberating, and borderless as BB did.
So out went the call to our comrades, many from our long-running Black Rock Coalition cohort (Jared Michael Nickerson, Rene Akan, Jason DiMatteo, Swiss Chris, Qasim Naqvi, Bruce Mack, Vijay Iyer, Morgan Craft, Kirk Douglas), to jam and workshop in a rehearsal studio for a few Saturdays running on a project tagged as "our own Bitches Brew for Now." First actual gig was the basement of CBGB's, where many modern musical interventions were hatched; our first album, recorded December 9, 1999, at Peter Karl's studio in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill, set us off on a course of making an album or two or three a year ever since, adding several additional mainstay players along the way: Lewis "Flip" Barnes, Lisala Beatty, Micah Gaugh, Trevor Holder, Chris Eddleton, Mazz Swift, André Lassalle, Abby Dobson, Ben Tyree, V. Jeffrey Smith, "Moist" Paula Henderson, Dave "Smoota" Smith, Leon Gruenbaum, Mikel Banks, Shelley Nicole.
Built into Burnt Sugar's conceptual frame was always the notion of assimilating our beloved late sensei Lawrence "Butch" Morris's Conduction system for improvisers into our baton-whipped stank because we didn't want to be stereotyped as a "jam band." Three years later we got to record an album of adapted Stravinsky motifs, The Rites, under Butch's magisterial baton with extra-special guests' sauce provided by Pete Cosey, Melvin Gibbs, and Vijay Iyer.
Nobody way back when was thinking two decades of touring and recording would rush by at warp speed while we split options between pure unadulterated Conduction-centric shows created in the moment, and others that found us theatrically and adroitly tributing the likes of James Brown (at The Apollo, no less), Sun Ra (at Coney Island's Sideshow Theatre with Brown Girls Burlesque, Lawdhamerci!!!), but day-yam, here we are. The canons and catalogues of Miles Davis, David Bowie, Rick James, Melvin Van Peebles, Steely Dan, DC Go Go and Prince's Parade have also been rudely and rightfully exploited to expand our interpretive palette over this time span. We've also never stopped singing our own strange and bodacious songs, as we'll primarily be doing on January 10 at the Atrium. All in motion towards fulfilling our dual threat bass ace/band manager Jared Nickerson's prophetic statement to moi somewhere near the beginning of this journey that "We are going to be playing this music until we are very old men AND WOMEN." Knock on wood and inshallah to that.
Greg Tate is a writer, musician, and cultural provocateur who lives and thrives atop Harlem's Sugar Hill. His books include the acclaimed essay collection Flyboy in The Buttermilk, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and The Black Experience, Brooklyn Kings/New York City's Black Bikers (wtih photographer Martin Dixon), and Everything But The Burden—What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. He is currently finishing work on Beast Mode: Iconic Gods and Monsters of the Bloodthirsty Black Atlantic and Beyond for publication by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in early 2020. Tate has been a Visiting Professor at Columbia, Yale, Brown, San Francisco State, Princeton University, and Williams College. He was a Staff Writer at The Village Voice from 1987 to 2003. His writings on culture and politics have also been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Artforum, Rolling Stone, and VIBE.
Since 1999 Tate has led the big band Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, who tour internationally and have released 19 albums on their Avant Groidd imprint. In 2019 the group will celebrate their twentieth anniversary with performances at Lincoln Center's David Rubinstein Atrium as well as at the Brooklyn Museum and the Apollo Theater. Tate is also co-leader with saxophonist Avram Fefer of the electronic improv quartet Rivers On Mars, whose debut album was released on Ropeadope in 2018.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber's anniversary celebration continues at the Brooklyn Museum on January 31 at 7:00 p.m.