I’ve been swimming around in Burnt Sugar‘s music for almost 20 years. The first album I bought was Black Sex Y’all Liberation & Bloody Random Violets, released in 2003. Very soon afterward, I picked up their back catalog — 2000’s Blood on the Leaf, Opus No. 1 and the 2001 trilogy That Depends On What You Know (reviewed here), all on CD-R in very nicely art-directed packaging, all bought from Downtown Music Gallery. From that point on, whenever they released something new, it was an automatic purchase from me. I saw them live twice, both times at the Vision Festival: first in 2004, when Vijay Iyer and Matana Roberts were still in the band, and again in 2012. At this point, they’ve released eight studio albums — counting the trilogy as one — three live albums, a rarities compilation, and a three-volume “best-of,” plus an album by Rebellum, a self-described “avant funk & roll splinter cell.”

Their latest release, Angels Over Oakanda, is their first in four years, following 2017’s All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity. It’s just four tracks long, but counts as an album in my book since it nudges the 40-minute mark. (The digital edition, available on Bandcamp, adds two tracks and nearly a half hour to the running time.) They’ve always mixed the organic with the electronic, always chopped up their guided improvisations in Pro Tools or by other means, but this record shares with its immediate predecessor a deep affinity for remix culture and the creative possibilities of the laptop.

The opening title track is a nearly 19-minute marathon that swirls through the room like a cloud of green and purple smoke, a deep dub-funk groove anchored by the group’s longtime secret weapon, baritone saxophonist “Moist” Paula Henderson. Other horns (trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes, alto saxophonist Avram Fefer, tenor and soprano saxophonist V. Jeffrey Smith, and flutist Satch Hoyt are all present) may seize more spotlight time, but her deep and perfectly on-time contributions are the glue that holds the arrangements together, as bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, guitarists Ben Tyree and André Lassalle, keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum, drummer Greg Gonzalez and percussionist Shelley Nicole journey through zones that nod to electric Miles Davis, Mwandishi-era Herbie Hancock, the spacier side of the Kudu Records catalog, and the instrumentals that used to pop up on Earth, Wind & Fire albums. It fades in and drifts away, as though it’s just one section of an endless musical conversation that spans all of Black history (which one could say about the Burnt Sugar catalog as a whole).

What follows are three kinda-sorta remixes, each one radical enough to exist as its own thing. “Repatriation-of-the-Midnight-Moors” was constructed by Marque Gilmore tha’ Inna•Most, a producer who also drums with the group and collaborates with them on arrangements. For 12 minutes, the beat pounds and a soft flute loop hypnotizes the listener, with fast handclaps keeping time and wordless vocals cooing in and out every once in a while.

The third track, “Oakanda Overdrive,” is a collaboration between Nickerson and Smith that features plenty of tenor sax (shadowed by flute), supported by a changing-same bass groove and layers of keyboards and percussion. Like the first track, it feels both organic and electronically altered, weird electronic accents emerging at times like the robots listening in have decided they want to join the party.

The final track on the CD version, “Lisala Over Inna-Oakanda,” is the only one with lyrics; it features vocalist Lisala Beatty singing BS co-founder Greg Tate‘s lyrics over portions of “Repatriation,” versioning the shit out of it. Whether you buy the four-track CD or the six-track digital version, this is right up there with the best of Burnt Sugar‘s work, and shows that well into their third decade of existence, they have yet to reach the limits of their potential.

(Side note: an early, shorter version of “Angels Over Oakanda,” titled “Oakanda Spoonful,” can be found on Eyes Shut, Ears Open: A Burning Ambulance Compilation. Grab it on our Bandcamp page.)

Phil Freeman

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