For close to 20 years, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber has been bringing the lessons of free jazz and structured group improvisation into the world of funk and R&B. The last time author and bandleader Greg Tate brought his band to the Atrium (in August), it was to pay tribute to the artistry of Prince. This time (January 5), his New York Funk Mob will look back on its own, heavy history.
Kurt Gottschalk: Burnt Sugar will be marking its 18th year this year. Did you expect it to be a long-term project when you started the band? How have you managed to keep it going for so long?
Greg Tate: When we started it was to explore working in the way Miles Davis had in recording Bitches Brew with contemporary musicians—direct them like Miles did with a few simple gestures, create a sweeping cinematic canvas with a large ensemble spontaneously responding to a few sparse elements: a bass line, a drum pattern. See how players who'd absorbed all the sonic techniques that had emerged since Bitches Brew would handle the situation. How would they deploy those strategies in real-time conversation with their rowdiest playmates?
Miles used producer Teo Macero to cut and paste those jams, add special effects, loop and remix what Miles and the cats had cut, turning three-hour morning studio sessions into mystical and mystifying, album-length epics. We adopted the conduction system of our guru, the late great Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, to pull off live what Teo spent weeks in the studio manipulating with razor blades, recording tape, and echo chambers.
In 2002, we got a $75,000 touring grant spread over three years from the now defunct funding agency Arts International. That was when we realized this Sugar thing had longer legs than we originally assumed.
KG: Let's talk about some of the songs we'll be hearing at the Atrium. “Burning Crosses” is an amazing piece, and you've recorded more than one version of it. It manages to stretch between gospel and chamber music, all with a hip-hop feel running through it. Gospel is, of course, such an important part of so much African-American music. Did you grow up with it? Is it something you use intentionally or does it just come through?
GT: I always say I was raised in ''The Church of Black Power'' by two very political parents in what myself and friends raised likewise call a "movement household." So all my "gospel roots" are once removed, since I first took note of them in the music of The Temptations, Sly & The Family Stone, Aretha, John Coltrane, Funkadelic. Some of Burnt Sugar's singers, like Abby Dobson and Lisala Beatty, are more grounded via family traditions in the Baptist and Pentecostal Black Church musical experiences—for them that realm of expressivity is indeed reflexive, well studied, deeply felt, and second nature.
KG: On "Juliette and Romeo" we hear what feels like an R&B song with a saxophone pushing harder than we might expect. Was there a model for you in putting heavier jazz horn into vocal songs?
GT: Sun Ra, again, and more specifically the work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who'd often blow up a sweet pop ditty like The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye" with radical horn eruptions. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, too—specifically a tune of theirs called ''Theme De Yoyo,'' which they recorded with AEC trumpeter Lester Bowie's wife, soul music legend Fontella Bass in 1970. The fiery sax and smooth vocal teamwork of Pharaoh Sanders with Leon Thomas and Gary Bartz with Andy Bey also set a precedent in that regard, as did Amiri Baraka's visionary 1967 essay "The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)," which called for a "unity music" that reconciled roughneck avant-garde jazz with roughneck funk.
"My mother kept the speeches of Malcolm X and the music of Pete Seeger and Nina Simone in heavy rotation on Sundays."
KG: "Blood on the Leaf" reminds me of some of Prince's instrumental sections, which often call back to Carlos Santana. We know you're a Prince fan, both from your writing and from your last appearance at the Atrium. What is some of the earliest music in your listening life that rises up again in Burnt Sugar?
GT: I grew up in a very funky town, Dayton, Ohio—home of the Ohio Players—where I heard hella Beatles, Motown, and Stax on the radio. But my mother kept the speeches of Malcolm X and the music of Pete Seeger and Nina Simone in heavy rotation on Sundays in our quite spirited but nonreligious household—a.k.a. "The Church of Black Power."
Those Sunday playlists likely set the course for everything that followed. Mom introduced me to reggae via the The Harder They Come soundtrack, nearly a full decade before most Black Americans even got hip to what reggae stood for. Ditto for Fela's Afrobeat. Mom loved Fela's "Lady" and would sometimes play it over and over for hours at a time. It definitely taught me to appreciate the hypnotic beat and the repetitive motion of Fela's long-form groove concept.
KG: Anything else the audience should be listening for?
GT: Ha! Just that hella shrapnel will be flying from the stage wrapped in bucketloads of salty wildflowers so we advise folk, as the Wu-Tang Clan would: "Ya best Protect Ya Neck." Pith helmets and flak jackets optional.
Kurt Gottschalk is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster based in New York City. He contributes to the blog I Care If You Listen.