BY ZIVIT SHLANK JAZZ CORRESPONDENT Sun Ra was famously quoted as saying, “I’m not a prophet. I’m a destiny-changer… the best thing to do is change things if you’ve got the power.” There’s no doubt his wisdom and musical vision left an indelible impression on many, including author, educator, musician, and former Village Voice writer Greg Tate. He, along with bassist Jared Nickerson, founded Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber in 1999. This eclectic, sprawling ensemble features a cast of musicians ranging in size from 13 to 35 members, who Tate refers to as “known Irish fiddlers, AACM refugees, Afro-punk rejects, unrepentant be-boppers, feminist rappers, jitterbugging doo-woppers, frankly loud funk-a-teers and rodeo stars of the digital divide.” They span the musical spectrum with their unique brand of soul/jazz/funk fusion, drawing from a plethora of highly influential sounds, including the aforementioned Ra, Duke Ellington, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Weather Report. They’ve paid unique tribute to the works of David Bowie, Steely Dan, and Sly & The Family Stone, among others, so incorporating the beloved and iconic mojo of Miles Davis and James Brown (both of whom cited each other as influences at one time or other) into their repertoire seems quite fitting. Burnt Sugar will be descending on the Painted Bride Arts Center Friday, September 28th to celebrate the music of Miles Davis and James Brown by creating fresh and inspired improvisations based on their foundational musical ideas. Phawker recently chatted with Dickerson and Tate to dig further.
PHAWKER: As both a music journalist and musician, you’re very well versed in the art. You once said that you were looking to create music you heard in your head that wasn’t already being put out there. What’s the genesis behind Burnt Sugar?
GREG TATE: I had the idea to form the group back in 1999 based on some reading I had done on Miles Davis and Bitches Brew and the way he put that particular album together. The group really started because I had realized that that’s one of my favorite, if not my favorite, records of all time. That record is like an event; it’s bigger than itself. Its reverberations in the culture are so resounding and large that it exists in a place in my head that’s bigger than just the music and the groove itself. He took these great musicians and didn’t tell them what they should be doing — they just had to go into the studio and follow his lead. They would stop and go, four hours a day, for three days. The musicians just had to trust Miles, period. So I was interested in kind of recreating that with musicians that knew Bitches Brew, but who also knew musically what had happened since dub, reggae, hip hop, house music, Detroit techno, drum and bass, triphop, and all that. So I called up 10 of my compatriots, including Jared Nickerson, whom I had known from the Black Rock Coalition since its inception in 1985. This is my response to clubs shutting down and the lack of adventurous music. We are advocates for anarchy and an injection of chaos theory in a very conservative, predictable music world.
JARED NICKERSON: Greg had approached me and said he wanted to put together a band that would be well versed in jazz, funk, and rock language. The first jam session featured myself, pianist Vijay Iyer, Bruce Mack, Trevor Holder, Rodney Draden, and a few others, and we knew we were onto something. At that time, CBGB had converted the basement into an underground club, and we had a few dates down there just to see how it would go in front of audience. Following that experiment, we went into the studio and recorded our first album, Blood On The Leaf, which received very positive reviews, and we’ve just been going ever since.
PHAWKER: When I first listened to your album Making Love To The Dark Age, I refused to classify what I was hearing and just let it be. However, with each listen, amidst all the layers, I would always pick out something new. Would you say that the goal of any artist or musician is to create something that bears repeated investigation?
GREG TATE: You know something, yeah. The recording process is especially interesting because you’re trying to take all that energy and improvisation and compress it onto a CD. And with each and every recording, we strive to channel all that and create something that will take you on an adventure.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about James Brown and Miles Davis. Obviously you don’t want to cover their music line for line, so much as pay homage by creating new music that is familiar but approaches it in a whole new way. Are you all up for the challenge?
JARED NICKERSON: We initially developed our reputation by never playing the song the same way twice. We’ve done a lot of tributes in our career and were very fortunate to have recently been commissioned by the Apollo Theatre to do a James Brown show. Our goal is to keep all the musical information intact, but also put the Holy Ghost up in it and inject new meaning into the lyrical content.
PHAWKER: So what can we potentially expect from a performance by Burnt Sugar?
GREG TATE: You know, it’s not like we talk about the music before or after because there’s no need to. When the chemistry is there, it all just falls into place; it’s just so second-nature to us. It’s funny, because when people come to see the band live, they are confronted with pretty much a city on stage with instruments. And there are all these interesting-looking characters, and they all kind of have their own super powers and are in conversation with each other. It’s definitely epic; there’s a cinematic or theatrical quality to our shows. Even if you don’t quite connect with all the music in the way you might connect with other music, there’s also a lot visually going on for people to use as a way of following what’s happening. One thing that enables us to do that is using certain hand and baton gestures that kind of revive, rearrange, and redirect the music at any time during the course of a show. If whoever is conducting has an idea they want to communicate with the band, you have to completely flip it and be ready to move as the music moves. It constantly challenges us and keeps us alert. When we get up on the stage, everybody is just about kicking ass from start to finish.