In characterizing the music of the deliberately elusive collective Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, one can come up with a whole host of made-up genres and still not quite nail what they sound like. Is it trance fusion-jazz? Freefrom funk? Structured group improv? Or is it avant-soul? Yes, to all of these things, and more. I already took a stab at applying labels the last time they had a new record out, the sharply skewed gonzofest of Making Love To The Dark Ages (2009), and with last fall’s unveiling of its follow-up All Ya Needs That Negrocity, it’s time to attempt to describe the indescribable all over again. Led by co-founder/conductor/guitarist Greg Tate and co-founder/bassist Jared M. Nickerson, Burnt Sugar mixes up a diverse cross section of full-time member and guest cracker jack musicians who readily come to receive Tate’s conduction because it’s conducive to fun.
As if to defy expectations of some grand, heavy entrance as they did on Dark Ages, the first track is instead an ingenious remake of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” Lewis Flip Barnes blows trumpet over a spacious and lean arrangement of Qasim Naqvi’s calypso beats and Myles Reilly’s no-fuss piano, and not much else. The next song is another cover of an entirely different sort: an Astor Piazzolla tango, “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango),” with the lyrics delivered by Lisala and Maya Azucena over Mazz Smith’s weeping violin.
Oh yes, there’s guest vocalists on Negrocity as usual, but the voices are used in unconventional ways. Abby Dobson’s operatic vocal on “Burning Crosses” (Youtube below) adds a haunting element against the percolating funk backdrop. Lisa Teasley’s sensual poetry reading of “The Guru’s Lover” is perfectly mated to a mystical groove, that’s allowed to continue on as a Wadada Leo Smith-styled funk-jazz excursion “Claudine.” Lisala uses her voice as an extra improvisational instrument, moaning as the guitars go wailing on the second part of “Whut Rough Beast?”
Much of the rest of the program is filled with Bunrt Sugar’s bread and butter: hypnotic, evolving free form jams. Frequent Burnt Sugar guest pianist and current jazz superstar Vijay Iyer partook in the organic, loping funk of “Bliques Haff Moor Funn,” competing for space with saxophonists Avram Fefer and Micah Gaugh in a monstrous jam that devolves into loosely defined reggae. “Bliques Stregems” is a continuation of the deconstruction, but separated by the two-part “Whut Rough Beast?”, an avant-metal orchestral jazz number where Tate lets the big horn section cut loose.
Wild and wooly with swerving verve, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber remains as creative and unpredictable as when it all got started back in 1999. Maybe the best account of this record and other Burnt Sugar records come from Tate himself. As he so rightly puts it, “Really still just Black Music since black is still all the colors smutted together.”
All Ya Needs That Negrocity released last November on the AvantGroidd label.