by W. Kim Heron
That Depends on What You Know: The Crepuscularium
That Depends on What You Know: Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite
As a longtime contributor to the Village Voice and such, Greg Tate has sung the P-Funk booty electric, led cheers for King Sunny Ade’s royal Nigerian juju and assayed the perfect fusion storms of Miles Davis’ Dark Magus and Agartha bands. He’s always had his ear cocked for rule breakers, montage-makers, shape-shifters and mind-blowers.
So you have to think he’d now and then daydream reviews of a band where he’d cut and paste the collage. But, hell, why write that review if — gargantuan if here — you can form the band that gets the rest of the critical fraternity to thumb their thesauri and draw down their metaphor banks to write what’s in your head? And Burnt Sugar is that band.
Burnt Sugar’s debut, Blood on the Leaves, defied easy description, and this sophomore effort, three CDs with more than three hours of music collectively, just about cubes the sense of adventure. This is a big-ass jam band, heavy on guitars; there are 30 or so instrumentalists and vocalists collectively (guitarist Vernon Reid and pianist Vijay Ayer may be the best known), though it’s any listener’s guess how many are playing at any one time. Tate and company can build a riff into a song, but they have just as much fun decomposing a song (Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and especially Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” to note their two covers) into riffs before quantum-leaping back to the tune. George Clinton is a touchstone in Sugar’s jam mode, but so are the Grateful Dead and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, so much so that they tout their most far-flung excursions (on the Fubractive release) as their tributes to Lester Bowie, Don Cherry, Sonny Sharrock, Fred Hopkins, Don Pullen — and to the Dead’s “Dark Star.” (With the aforementioned Monk cover to boot, Fubractive is the most jazz-oriented of the three volumes here.)
But along with their jamming influences and predecessors there’s something of equal importance here: the presence of Tate as a “conductor” gesturing to band members and shaping the proceedings. Conductor in a jam band? Yeah, and then some. The jazz-rooted composer Lawrence Butch Morris for years has been doing something like this in a more abstract way. Tate just brings the concept closer to the street level for a generation that’s closer to hip hop than bebop. Vital music.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.