Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber – Making Love To The Dark Ages (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Using large ensembles as vehicles for improvised music is hardly a new proposition, but can be one of the riskiest ones. After all, the more musicians involved, the more likelihood that one or more them won’t be on the same page and thus the greater potential for, well, disaster. We visited upon the music of one such wide open orchestra a few years back with Build An Ark. The big band “Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber” takes way more chances, however.

This rag-tag collection of twenty or so vocalists, horn players, guitarists, percussionists, keyboardists, bass player—even harmonica player—is guided by group bandleader Greg Tate. The guidance comes in the form of “conduction,” a system whereby Tate uses facial and hand gestures to direct different sections or individual players of the band to do certain things when the cue is given. Those certain things can be a change-up in rhythm, repeating a riff, adding or subtracting horn charts, or just about anything that can tweak or completely change the harmonic structure of a song. Anything goes with this band.

They’ve been described by David Fricke of Rolling Stone Magazine as “a multiracial jam army that freestyles with cool telekinesis between the lustrous menace of Miles Davis’ On The Corner, the slash-and-om of 1970s King Crimson, and Jimi Hendrix’ moonwalk across side three of Electric Ladyland.” I would also add to that the fact that “Arkestra” is in the name, a not-so-subtle nod to the orchestral madcap antics of Sun Ra. But unlike more formal orchestras, this one has interchangeable parts; each song calls for a different configuration built around a relatively small core group, and for their newest release Making Love To The Dark Ages, a few of the satellite members are some pretty potent names, like Vijay Iver (piano) and Vernon Reid of Living Colour fame (guitar).

The three part “Chains And Water” suite is the most ambitious piece of the album, and it’s put right out at the front of it. Frankly, it’s hard to categorize the music since there are so many musical forces at work here (which probably suits Tate just fine). But, Lisala’s lead vocal lends a strong r&b component to it, and the saxophones and trumpet soloing around the vocal provides a jazz aesthetic to it as well. The synth, electric piano and acid guitar lends a psychedelic vibe, and Tate’s post-taping manipulations probably only added to the murkiness of it all. The eerie coda resembles bebop being played by ghosts.

“Thorazine/81” is co-credited to Ron Carter and Miles Davis, because the repeating horn figure is lifted straight from Carter’s and Davis’ “Eighty-One” from Miles’ E.S.P. (although AllMusic.com’s review of this album oddly didn’t pick up on that). Amidst the combating cellos, horns and rock guitars, Jared Michael Nickerson’s electric bass is—as is often the case on this record—about the only thing tethered to the ground in this swirling cauldron of funk and neo-bop gumbo.

The smoke clears for “Love To Tical”, but only marginally so. The bass, drums and rhythm guitar says “funk,” the female vocalese might say “jazz,” Reid’s lead axe says “heavy metal” and the horns say seemingly whatever they want to say. The sass, verve and insistent rhythm give the song all the unity it needs, though.

Using just a quartet without a drummer or bassist, the mood piece “Dominata” is the ballad of the bunch. But even here is the sense that some mad scientist at work here. Perhaps it’s Tate making electronic effects from his laptop that’s leaving such an impression, but there’s some appealingly soulful work from the sax players (V. Jeffrey Smith, ‘Moist’ Paula Henderson), the trombonist (David Smith) and the pianist (Myles Reilly).

The album ends as it begins…with a multi-part suite. “Making Love To The Dark Ages” is built around the by-now familiar dark, ambient electronica vibe and a lightly funky rhythm, but this time, the lead voice is Mazz Swift’s gloomy violin. Henderson and Lew ‘Flip’ Barnes, Jr. (trumpet) later engage in some murmuring back-and-forth.

It’s a mess…sometimes a beautiful mess, other times…just a mess. But always ambitious. Burnt Sugar’s Making Love To The Dark Ages ain’t for everybody and even for those who “get it,” may not be in the mood for it all the time. But when the mood does strike, the mind opens up and the patience runs long, there lies some treasures for the ears.

Making Love To The Dark Ages came out last March 17, by LiveWired Music.

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