Burnt Sugar Arkestra's Tribute to Prince
Purple Rain—the song, album, movie, and concert tour—will forever be remembered as Prince's crowning achievement. But it wasn't just a career high (or, arguably, an apogee of pop music in the '80s), it was the onset of a storm of creativity for the nascent superstar. From 1985 to 1988, he released the psychedelia of Around the World in a Day, the polyrhythmic funk of Sign o' the Times, the soul-searching fantasia Lovesexy, and, nestled in the middle in 1986, a surprisingly stark and innovative album called Parade.
Essentially a soundtrack to his widely panned second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, the album (like the movie) was hardly an attempt to fan the flames of Purple Rain. The movie was an odd juxtaposition of 1970s blaxploitation and a romantic French period piece. Like the movie, the album artwork is in black and white, far from his usually vivid imagery.
In a sense, the music on Parade is black and white as well. Thirty years later it's easy to forget that crossing racial lines was rare on the radio in the ‘80s. Prince had boldly merged pop, new wave, and R&B styles and—like Michael Jackson—was building a white audience, largely thanks to having videos in heavy rotation on MTV. But beyond issues of race, Prince’s Parade music was at times stripped down to the basics. After the paisley and raspberry of the previous albums, this new album was bold and sleek. Prince was laying it down in black and white.
This is the album that the writer, bandleader, and Black Rock Coalition founder Greg Tate has chosen to draw from for the Burnt Sugar Arkestra tribute on August 25, Under the Cherry Parade in a Day (You Sexy MF). While the album includes two perennial favorites (the electrifying "Kiss" and the heart-wrenching "Sometimes it Snows in April"), it also includes some lesser known marvels, from the ebullient "Mountains" to the jazzy "Do U Lie?" to the stone cold funk of "Anotherloverholeinyohead."
"Prince saw this very esoteric and danceable album as a gift to those he considered his true fans rather than the ones who'd jumped on board the bandwagon for Purple Rain."
The "carnivalesque and neo-baroque" album, according to Tate, is a perfect vehicle for his multifaceted ensemble. "Prince saw this very esoteric and danceable album as a gift to those he considered his true fans rather than the ones who'd jumped on board the bandwagon for Purple Rain," Tate explains. "He felt many of those new fans were not the kind who would follow him wherever his muse took him in his subsequent career and in this he proved prescient and correct."
Parade marked a new kind of collaboration for Prince as well. Working with an orchestrator, he crafted a new style for his latest vision. The broader instrumentation of the album gives Burnt Sugar plenty of material to play with. The band is well versed in interpreting the work of others. In the past they’ve taken on the catalog of interstellar jazz titan Sun Ra and, working with the late Downtown composer/arranger Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, revamped Stravinsky’s landmark The Rite of Spring. It’s a safe bet that they won’t be moving lightly into the Prince songbook.
"The collaborative orchestrations with the brilliant composing and arranging legend Clare Fischer provides the score, wrapped in a dreamscape that flows like an episodic suite rather than an amalgam of songs that appeared in the film," Tate explains. "Prince also took advantage of the soundtrack as an opportunity to make an album that wasn't as personality-driven as his other work—in many ways the elaborate orchestration and layered composition is the star."
Molding his band from electric orchestra to intimate duos and trios from one song to the next, Tate and his fellow musicians—including acclaimed jazz cellist Marika Hughes—will lead a proper tribute to a pop master, a purple parade of hard-hitting horns, swinging strings, and soaring vocals for the departed master from Minneapolis.
Kurt Gottschalk writes extensively about jazz, classical, and pop music, and is the host of the Miniature Minotaurs program on WFMU.