Photo: Nisha Sondhe

Burnt Sugar is a New York-based improvising ensemble that blends funk, rock, jazz (swing to free), hip-hop, poetry and less easily defined sounds into a thick, swirling, smoky blend that’s like a one-stop history of the entire African-American musical continuum. They’re intellectual, soulful, raucous, simmering, and fiercely independent in just about every sense of that word. All Ya Needs That Negrocity (buy it from Amazon) is the seventh studio release by the group (assuming you don’t count the odds ‘n’ ends compilation Chopped & Screwed Vol. 2 and/or the “soundtrack” Burnt Sugar vs. the Dominatrix, each of which were released in slim CD cases, like hip-hop mixtapes). It follows their first and only album on a label not their own, 2009’s  Making Love to the Dark Ages, and yet it’s neither a statement of purpose nor a re-assertion of core values nor anything more than a dispatch from the group’s ongoing journey, which includes membership changes, increasing embrace of laptop loops, and an ever-broader musical scope.

(Before we really get started, it bears mentioning that Burnt Sugar are the cover subjects of the current issue of Burning Ambulance magazine, and you ought to pick up a copy—$10 for perfect-bound paperback, $5 for e-book, $3 for Kindle. Thank you in advance for your patronage.)

The album kicks off with two re-interpretations; calling them “covers” would disrespect the amount of mutation and transformation involved. “The Cold Sweat Variations” takes as its inspiration the James Brown track “Cold Sweat,” which according to its co-composer, Pee Wee Ellis, was itself derived in part from Miles Davis‘s “So What.” Thus it’s natural that this track is a stripped-down, entirely instrumental trio effort by trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes, drummer Qasim Naqvi and pianist Myles Reilly. The rhythm is an intricate dance, the chords behind minimal and stark, the horn solo vocal and introspective even as it reaches one climax after another. It seems to serve almost as an overture, setting a meditative yet funky mood that’s uniquely Burnt Sugar while also offering notice that the listener is now in a zone where almost anything can happen.

Worth noting: group founder and mastermind Greg Tate, who conducts the group live and produces all the records, says of this track, “For the record, Flip kinda hates it—a lil’ too avant-garde even for him. But he knows the deal: the game of Con­duc­tion has never claimed to be demo­c­ratic. Band knows the deal. You don’t want to hear it on a record, don’t play it in the stu­dio.”

This shattering of boundaries continues on the album’s second track (and second re-interpretation), a version of Astor Piazzola‘s “Libertango (I’ve Seen That Face Before)” on which blaring horns and scraping, sizzling post-Hendrixian electric guitar battle a clattering drum kit and soulful vocals (not to mention a moody spoken-word interlude) for dominance. It’s worth noting that this track is likely a nod not so much to Piazzola as to Grace Jones, who recorded it on her Nightclubbing album in 1981, suffusing it with her unique blend of predatory lust and imperious scorn. Burnt Sugar’s version is much more unfettered, the reggae (not to mention the accordion) of Jones’s take scraped away in favor of a top-volume rock arrangement, plus Middle Eastern-inflected violin by Mazz Swift, who’s been a crucial element of the group’s sound for years.

Right around track five (which is only about a quarter of the way through the album; at 77 1/2 minutes, AYNTN stretches CD storage capacity nearly to its limit), punchy vocal numbers are abandoned in favor of sprawling instrumentals, beginning with “Claudine,” which is constructed from a GarageBand loop that sounds like something DJ Krush might have come up with. Atop that foundation, the horns—saxophonist Harald Keisedu and Barnes, again—spin out extravagant yet disciplined solos. “Bliques Haff Moor Funn” features pianist Vijay Iyer, an all-but full-time member of Burnt Sugar in its first half-decade but a more intermittent guest on later records (and gigs). The piece blends hip-hop’s rhythmic rigidity with free jazz’s squalling and willful fracturing of melodic convention, to dramatic effect. “Whut Rough Beast” and “Throne of Blood 33 1/3 (Encrypted Vernacular)” are similar in structure, but thoroughly different from each other in execution.

All Ya Needs That Negrocity concludes on an enigmatic yet final note, with the short instrumental “Blood Magic,” followed (after a moment of silence) by the unlisted “Start Thinking Like An African,” a dissonant looped rhythm track, barely over two minutes long, over which a voice declaims in an indeterminate accent—it’s almost like a sound-bite version of “Ghetto Youth,” the stark and brooding piece that’s the dark heart of Tricky‘s best album, 1996’s Pre-Millennium Tension, which pairs a similarly stark loop and a lecture delivered in a nearly incomprehensible Jamaican patois.

All Ya Needs That Negrocity is a terrific album, less sprawling than earlier efforts (like the double disc Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets or the trilogy That Depends On What You Know) but every bit as compelling, in all the old ways and a few new ones. Hell, “Libertango” could almost be heard as a bid for radio airplay. Burnt Sugar are one of America’s best, most sui generis bands. They’ve never made a bad record, and their live shows are alchemical marvels. Get this album.

Phil Freeman

Listen to “The Cold Sweat Variations”:

Listen to “Libertango (I’ve Seen That Face Before)”:

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