RIP Greg Tate. The critic and Burnt Sugar co-founder died December 7 at 64. I’ve been a fan of his writing and his music for nearly 30 years, so in tribute to him, I’m presenting this long interview, first published in December 2011 in the fifth issue of the Burning Ambulance print magazine.
Author and self-appointed rock historian Joe Carducci once said, “Record collectors shouldn’t be in bands,” but he’d probably never heard Burnt Sugar. Formed by lifelong musical omnivore and cultural critic Greg Tate as the 20th Century dragged to a close, Burnt Sugar is — twelve years on — one of the most fascinating and inspiring bands in America, if not the world. Their catalog represents a synthesis of virtually every strain of African-American music, plus modern composition, electronica, heavy metal and anything else that strikes their collective fancy. A dozen or so strong at any given time, their ranks have included heroes of the contemporary jazz scene such as pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Matana Roberts, and trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes, all playing alongside criminally under-recognized musicians like guitarists Morgan Michael Craft and Rene Akan, drummers Qasim Naqvi and Swiss Chris, and the astonishing, alchemical DJ Mutamassik. Special guests on individual records or at particular live events have included players renowned for bridging the gap between jazz and rock like bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarists Vernon Reid and Pete Cosey (justly worshipped for his pathbreaking work in Miles Davis’s band from 1973 to 1975). Propelled and buoyed by the combination of electric and upright bass, Burnt Sugar’s extended jams, conducted by Tate onstage and in the studio, are like dippings from a dark and swirling river that runs through all of American history and all the way back to Africa, but with a powerful current drawing the listener into the future, even as influences from Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and even David Bowie are lovingly acknowledged. As the band prepares to release its latest CD, All Ya Needs That Negrocity, it seemed like a good time to take stock of where they started and where they’ve been, via separate email interviews with Tate and co-founder/electric bassist Jared Michael Nickerson.
How and when did you first get the idea for Burnt Sugar, and how long did it take to come together?
Greg Tate: I used to read MOJO magazine fairly regularly. They have a section up front where they ask folks to name their favorite album of all time. I recall Ike Turner and Bootsy Collins both answering Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Go figure; I had never asked myself that question. When I did, the answer surprised me — Bitches Brew. Now, that’s not my favorite Miles record, because depending on a brother’s mood that honor shifts between Porgy and Bess, My Funny Valentine, Nefertiti and Dark Magus. After interrogating myself, though, I realized Bitches Brew, the Event, had captured my imagination. Because that thing is a meta-album, like A Love Supreme or Blonde On Blonde or The White Album or Electric Ladyland or De La Soul is Dead or The Chronic — it’s a phenomenon, a form of energy that takes up space in the world, and not just the world of music. It generates heat, light and mystery before you’ve heard a single note. Many small decisions, from personnel to post-production to timing, made for a singularity, a paradigm-shattering reboot and reformulation of jazz.
I knew Miles had conducted that record into being and then let Teo Macero subject it to all manner of post-production shenanigans and sorcery. I knew Miles had said the only way you get anything new in music is by taking the best players around and making them play beyond what they know—take away everything good musicians gauge quality performance by, except for being in the moment and listening. Take taste and even playback out of it. So I got to wondering, “What If I pulled together the most open, experimental, distinctive cats I know and used Brew as a template for a workshop band?” Having followed Butch Morris’s Conductions for about 15 years at that point, I knew that was the thing that would make it more orchestra than jam band. The first cats I called were my co-captain, bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, and synthesist Bruce Mack, both of whom I’d known for about 15 years from the Black Rock Coalition. Vijay Iyer had only been in New york maybe a year or so; we’d been introduced by Imani Uzurui, hit it off, and he got down immediately, as did these three drummers—Swiss Chris, Qasim Naqvi, and Eric Eigner—and the three guitarists Rene Akhan, Kirk Douglass (now with the Roots), and Morgan Michael Craft. We jammed in a now-defunct studio on West 26th Street where I’d also recorded my old rock band Women In Love’s album The Sound of Falling Bodies at Rest (with ex-Blue Öyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard producing) in 1992.
The Burnt Sugar workshop jams started in August of 1999. We had no horns and no vocals then—though by the time we did our first gig at CBGBs Underground in October, we’d added a percussionist, a power-punk violinist named Simmie, and a very young vocalist, Alice Smith, that I’d worked with the year before in another alt-rock band project called Moomtez. She’s since blown up on her own as a singer-songwriter “beyond category.” The band’s name actually came, or came back, from a suggestion I’d made to Geri Allen for an opera she was working on in the mid-’90s, but fortunately she declined. It popped out of the backbrain and stuck, as those things either will or won’t. Later I decided it was rightly suggestive of slave revolts, lynchings, women piqued with trifling men. Fitting name for an oblique Bitches Brew tribute band, too. We recorded the first album, Blood On the Leaf: Opus No. 1, in December of that year with that crew and the playwright/actor/vocalist/composer Eisa 31 Davis. We started gigging around town. Got some exceptional reviews from The Wire and Rolling Stone when the record hit in the spring. Then a truly strange and encouraging thing happened in 2001 — we won a $75,000 touring grant from a now defunct arts organization called Arts International that was bent on ensuring American avant-garde groups got to tour Europe. BS and the chamber group Ethel won that year. We did tour with that money, but we also poured some of it into the next few albums, too. That award became our kismet, benighted version of a major label deal.
Jared Michael Nickerson: I was asked by Greg to attend a jam session: Ronny Drayton on guitar, Vijay Iyer on organ, and Trevor Holder on drums were some of the attendees that I can remember. This was, I believe, during the summer/fall of 1999. We did two rehearsal/jam sessions and then we performed twice at CBGBs Underground. The picture from the Wire review of Blood On the Leaf is from one of the CBGB hits. Then we went in the studio and cut Blood On the Leaf, the first Burnt Sugar release.
Is there a core musical vocabulary that all the members share, in your mind?
GT: I’d say the same vocab Duke Ellington meant when he said the only music he was interested in was music “beyond category.” What the Art Ensemble of Chicago meant when they proclaimed theirs Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future. Same as Cecil Taylor when he lays claim to “all the notes” and identifies a trans-millennial Black Code Methodology at the heart of African and African-American creation. Same vocab as what my brother Brian implied when he described a young DC punk band in the ’80s as having “Fear of No Music.” Same as what some 19th Century musicologist meant when he observed “The Negro has a tendency to worry the note.” Same vocab Jimi Hendrix meant by “Sky Church,” and described this Handel, flamenco, Muddy Waters kind of thing as the sound he heard in his head. What Sun Ra meant, calling his music “Pictures of Infinity.” What Led Zeppelin meant by “the hammer of the gods.” What P-Funk meant by The Bomb. Same as what Beaver Harris meant when he called an album From Ragtime to No Time. So rhythm and blues basically, and rhythm and noise and rhythm and rhythm and rhythm and glitch — everything recombinant rhythms and blue notes have midwifed since Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington hit the scene. Like James Brown and Ornette Coleman. Like Howlin’ Wolf, the Drifters and the Velvet Underground. Like Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Cage, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Thom Bell, Don Pate. Like dub, punk, hip-hop, Minimalism, turntablism. Like all the ways MIDI and samplers changed the way a whole generation of electronic improvisers approach rhythm and organized noise on their axes, especially Burnt Sugar’s drummers, guitarists, string and keyboard cats. Electronically enhanced improvisers today know the mood created by one tone or one glitch can sustain listener interest for an entire concert or album nowadays. The challenge is to make your glitches as lyrical and soulful as Miles always made his. And to be as stylish as Miles too. Because this is definitely a band for whom that great black tradition of smart and natty stage costuming matters. That Miles Davis the Dandy/Lady Day the Diva influence is serious bidness to us. Like Prop Joe told Avon Barksdale once on The Wire, “Dress the part, be the part, motherfucker.”
JN: Yes, Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris’s “Conduction” system, which Butch mentored Greg in and Greg adapted using a combination of Butch’s and his own baton and hand gestures.
Was the debut album recorded in a few sessions, or was it a conglomeration of live tapes, studio stuff, scraps from here and there?
JN: As I remember, the debut was taken from one long session with all the players in the room; minimal overdubs were added and then tunes Greg had previously recorded with one of his former bands (that featured common members like Justice Dilla-X) were added.
GT: Most of Blood On the Leaf: Opus No. 1 was recorded in one four-hour session at what became our regular recording haunt — Peter Karl Audio in the Gowanus Arts Building, Park Slope, Brooklyn. Great room, great guy. There are two Moomtez things on there, featuring Alice Smith and our main man Justice Dilla-X. The last track is a remix of track four, “Gnawalickenlalibella,” with Kirk Douglass overdubbing that great 10-minute-long guitar solo over it. My intention was to jam for four hours and then cut it up, make loops, come back, overdub — but the more I listened the more I realized we already had an album. It just needed a bit of trimming.
Blood On the Leaf: Opus No. 1 was followed in 2001 by a three-CD set, given the collective title That Depends On What You Know and individually labeled The Sirens Return: Keep It Real ’Til It Flatlines, The Crepescularium, and Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite. (Read a retrospective review here.) The music encompassed studio-processed jams, live outbursts of poetry and jazz-funk-rock-hip hop, and radical reinterpretations of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Thelonious Monk and others.
Was the trilogy always planned as such, or did it just become that as material piled up?
JN: Greg planned it as such, as I remember.
GT: My attitude towards recording has always been twofold — capture the essence of whatever version of the band was in play then, and make records serve as our underground publicity machine. Keeping the band in the minds and faces of supportive press, always having something new, strange, different and spectacular out within a year’s time or less. That’s why we’ve released 15 albums in a decade. I told the band at the outset the second release would be a trilogy. I also promised ’em we’d put out a ten-disc set one day too. Soon come.
How was that recorded—in marathon sessions, or in bits and pieces?
JN: Yes, a number of eight-hour or so sessions; and as the recording presents, the tunes, in many instances were long in their original conception.
GT: As I recall, there’s some live stuff on there and two more tunes from the Moomtez project. The bulk of it, though, is from a couple of long sessions we did at Peter Karl’s. By that time trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes — who I’ve known since we both attended Howard University in the ’70s — percussionist Tia Nicole Leak and flautist/percussionist Satch Hoyt, saxophonists Micah Gaugh and Matana Roberts and vocalists Lisala Beatty and Justice Dilla-X had all become regular members of the posse. Except for Tia, who moved to Oakland for grad school, and Satch, who moved to Berlin, they’re all still in the mix. Vijay was still hitting with us routinely, as his increasingly busy schedule permitted. (He’ll still guest on our albums if I give him a call—and even play the occasional gig if he’s in town—which is mighty flattering. VI also once told somebody that I get everybody to play a way that they wouldn’t normally, which also kinda made my head swell.)
How was the material organized for the trilogy? Did each disc have a sub-theme that determined which tracks went where, or was the whole thing organized as one big musical object/event? Are the discs meant to be listened to in one long session, or do they exist as discrete albums, for you?
GT: Definitely discrete albums — each a complete thought in its own right. The title for each disc came to me after I’d selected and sequenced them though.
What is the process in the studio—do members bring in riffs? Do you write material that people then improvise on? Is there overdubbing or is it all live?
JN: It’s a combination of all three. The great thing about being in the studio with the Burnt Sugar crew is that we are all focused on playing with whose ever idea is presented at that moment. A riff someone is playing during a break can attract Greg’s attention and whoosh, we are off recording again with whomever is in the room at that time, and once it’s on tape it’s a tune to be worked with.
GT: Man, we use every trick in the book to generate material. As stated, I’ll bring in recorded and mixed tracks from unreleased older projects. We’ll assemble 14 to 20 cats in the room and go with only a bass line as a mood-setting spine — everything that follows is the product of Conduction and freestyling. We’ll also take certain jams and loop sections and then overdub solos and orchestration. Sometimes we’ll record a basic track with half the band, then bring the other half in to jam over that jam. Later I might overdub some weird loops or conversations or a cappella stuff from other sessions on top of that. Whatever the funk calls for, as Dr. Funkenstein sez. It’s a pretty fluid and varied creative process.
Are the lyrics written and recorded after the fact?
JN: Greg writes most of the lyrics, and on numerous occasions the vocals were recorded along with the original track; in other instances, vocals were added later.
GT: When I had Women in Love, I wrote complete songs with chord changes and lyrics every week. I still write songs and bring them in from time to time. Not as prolific as I once was—I think I wrote about 50 songs one year for Women in Love. These days I’m probably good for about three or four decent tunes a year.
What do you feel the combination of simultaneous acoustic and electric bass playing brings to the group sound?
JN: As Greg based the physical make-up of the band on the Miles/Bitches Brew ensemble, having the flexibility of acoustic and electric bass allows for a wide palette of thrust on the low end. As the electric bassist, playing with [acoustic bassist] Jason DiMatteo, who has excellent technique and ears, allowed for low end call-and-response opportunities, and when either one of us was “holding down the bottom,” the other could rise to an upper register or find a “hole” and provide counter-harmonic information for the ensemble to consider and react to.
GT: Horns, acoustic bass and piano together just have this historic gravitas and grain carried over from jazz—there’s a solidity that’s undeniably classic, seductive, hypnotic. Loud EFX-ridden guitars and electric bass, on the other hand, have been a grimy, gnarly and nasty old married couple since Cream and Jimi’s Experience came on the scene. I’m always surprised so few people have brought acoustic and electric bass together since Bitches Brew. Acoustic bass gives you this thick, meaty stew while electric bass, in funk and reggae, gives you this round, slippery thumping sensation in your viscera. The combination resonates ocean depths and a shark moving fast through those depths simultaneously. Acoustic instruments have a tonal purity that goes straight to hearts and minds, electric instruments have a sonic dimension that gets into your subconscious and your sex organs. But another ingredient to consider is sampled and looped sounds, digitized sounds. They’ve become our sonic measure of extreme modernity, the edge of tomorrow. Because nowadays, anything you generate with electric or acoustic instruments, no matter how brilliantly conceived and executed, reeks of nostalgia—doesn’t matter if the notes scream Dixieland, free jazz or grunge, your body knows it’s listening to some shit of ancient musical vintage. A 15-year-old Wu-Tang beat ringtone sounds more 21st Century than the latest Radiohead album. Not better, but more uniquely of this moment. So I’ve brought more and more loops and tracks into our live improvisational mix—met head-on the modern challenge of integrating acoustic, electric and digitally generated sounds in a way that seems spontaneous, organic, raw and cooked.
The next Burnt Sugar release was The Rites, a radical reworking of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps that featured guitarist Pete Cosey, bassist Melvin Gibbs (of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Sonny Sharrock’s group and the Rollins Band, not to mention Harriet Tubman), and, conducting the group in Tate’s stead, Lawrence “Butch” Morris.
What was the original inspiration behind The Rites?
GT: Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps caused riots and was the first symphonic work that had some booty groove going on. Can’t get blacker than that. The theme of the ballet made Igor let his inner African and his Black Russian out. George Lewis of the AACM told me that piece had been a favorite among the avant-garde brothers for a while. I’d been wanting the Sugar to do a major project with Butch Morris, to solidify the connection between his Conductions and ours. After we set the studio date, it turned out Jared couldn’t make it and Melvin Gibbs could. Then we found out Pete Cosey was going to be in town to work with Mel, so some serendipity was in the house. In one stroke we paid homage to Stravinsky, to Cosey and the Agharta band, to Butch and his invention of Conduction, and to that awesome and under-sung Power Tools album Gibbs had done with Bill Frisell and Shannon Jackson back in 1987 — in my humble opinion, the most paradigm-shifting power trio record since Band of Gypsys. The real genesis of The Rites, though, was a collaboration Burnt Sugar did with the choreographer and filmmaker Gabri Christa — who also happens to be our good friend Vernon Reid’s wife. Gabri has had a stellar career in Europe, Cuba and the States with experimental dance folk like Bill T. Jones and William Forsythe and with her own company Danzasia. She loves free jazz and she loves Burnt Sugar and Conduction and she decided to adapt Conduction to live choreography. We’re both fans of the dance Pina Bausch created for her version of the ballet. I suggested to Gabri we do our own remix of the Rites for a performance she had coming up at Central Park Summerstage in 2002. Out of that came our now eight-year-old collaborative side project company Burnt Sugar/DANZ. We’ve now done about eight major commissioned performances of conducted dance and music with that group—Central Park, Dance Theatre Workshop, Symphony Space, Staten Island University, United Nations Plaza, Baryshnikov Arts Center (where the Broadway musicals Fela and In the Heights were born), Lincoln Center Out of Doors and The Alvin Ailey Center. I love the BS/DANZ project madly — not least because it’s a virtuosos’ movement version of Burnt Sugar. To me, it’s the ultimate visual rendering of the music. The band gawks at the dancers as much as the audience does. For that first Central Park performance, Butch and I split musical conduction duties. A few months later, we recorded a more developed version in about eight hours—four for Butch to rehearse the band, four to track. The Central Park gig was actually far less Stravinsky than Conduction. The studio version is truer to the score with respect to Conduction exploding the extracted elements.
Does it sit aside from the primary Burnt Sugar discography for you, as its own special thing?
JN: Nope; just part of the canon.
GT: Hmm, yes and no. Because while The Rites is the only album of ours that has Butch conducting, he’s actually conducted the band live many times since then. And all the guests are major friends, fellow travelers, role models, family. I used to manage Melvin Gibbs’s rock band [Eye & I] in the ’90s, helped ’em get a gig on Epic. Pete Cosey I’ve known since the early ’80s, housed him or found him free lodging. He’s the background radiation and patron saint of out guitar players. First time we played Chicago, he came, said he wanted to jump onstage and jam but didn’t know the format. I said, “Man, you are the format.” So The Rites is very much a clubhouse album, an Our Gang affair, with a few special passengers, and the core band is still our regular cats. Thing, too, is all our albums are personal production projects for me. I consider all aspects of making records culminate in an artform — from composing material to recording, mixing, mastering to choosing art to writing press releases. I creative direct, mix and master all of them for sometimes weeks with Peter Karl — the live ones included. The Rites was no exception. That’s the only one I did absolutely no Conduction on, ’tis true, but I did choose all the players and suggested several of the Stravinsky motifs we pulled from the score—though so did Butch and Vijay. The distinguishing feature is really the elevated level of Conduction and discipline Butch brought to the band. You’re talking a level of finesse and nuance with Conduction way beyond mine. Course, the biggest difference between me and Butch is that he has zero interest in solos, especially saxophone solos. He’s the soloist when he conducts—unless there’s a guest star like Pete specially assigned that role. I tend to be more democratic and indulgent of uncorked wankery.
Obviously Butch Morris’s Conduction methodology is hugely important to Burnt Sugar’s praxis, but what was his response when asked to conduct The Rites? How did his presence up front change things?
GT: End of the day, Butch is the master and inventor of Conduction and a master musician as well. He demands and commands absolute attention from the band; that brings a level of precision to Conducting nobody else has. He also is someone who was an amazing jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer before Conduction became his bailiwick—he brings a thorough musicality that I can’t pretend to possess. That said, he was amazed when he heard Blood On the Leaf and straight asked me, “How did you do that?” I recall watching him conduct The Rites and thinking, Damn, he pulls stuff out of our guys with a flick of the wrist, these graceful sleight of hand gestures. His live editing process is also so damn crafty and severe. He brought those pieces to conclusion and climax on The Rites at exactly the length they appear on the album. It probably would’ve been a triple album if I’d conducted it.
JN: Different personalities. Butch is very meticulous in what he wants from an ensemble he’s conducting; Greg allows the group to “marinate” and provide the musical direction, then he takes the simmering stew or an idea from one of the players in that stew and builds a new composition from the ensemble or that player’s musical kernel.
At what point did you realize the group was something completely different from what you’d originally envisioned?
JN: It’s always been what I thought it would be…an extremely exciting, musical-tightrope-walking-in-public picnic with friends.
GT: It’s funny because musically it’s always been exactly what I envisioned—this bastion of musical freedom and self-determination, free of hidden agendas, band drama, beef, boundaries or creative limits. When I had the band Women in Love in the early ’90s our lead singer Mikel told me my problem was I had too many ideas — that I needed five bands to satisfy me. Well, Burnt Sugar is those five bands — hence the range of stuff we’ve done: the tributes to James Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, Miles, and David Bowie; the Burnt Sugar/Danz company with Gabri; The Rites with Butch and all the trippy, funky fresh, freestyle extravaganzas we’ve done in between. The part I never saw coming, though, has been the social part, the deep bonding tribal part — the fact that so many of the same folks enjoy the hang a half decade or more later. My friend Craig Street once told me, “Try to only work with people you’d want to sit down and have a meal with.” These are those kinda people. I never figured we’d all be so Kumbaya and copacetic this far down the road.
At what point do you think the group achieved self-awareness, i.e. full consciousness of its own Burnt Sugar-ness?
JN: From the very beginning as, like Miles, Greg has a talent for picking the “right” players, meaning players who were comfortable turning on a dime, possessed a number of musical styles within their personal style, had big ears and were fearless.
GT: Okay, now you’re asking for band lore. Might have been that first trip to Chicago and Detroit in 2001, where my man Justice Dilla-X strode through the Chicago airport wearing just a Speedo and Doc Martens. Definitely a pre 9/11 rock stars on parade moment for us. Qasim also named that tour The Booty Dollar Tour, and nothing brings family together like financial self-deprecation. Then again, might’ve been this gig in Brighton, UK about six years ago. The crew for the opening act, who had ten tons of digital gear, tried to punk us and cut our soundcheck short. We got so pissed off, we came out brutally hard, stomped all over that ass, stole their crowd and sold way more CDs. We felt mighty gangsta after that. Won’t ever forget this one gig at Makor, though, either — one cat who shall remain nameless was breaking up with his girlfriend and throughout the set, he would randomly start wailing how that girl was gone gone gone. We just let him go there the whole night and just played our set like it was intentional. It became like this bizarre split screen version of a gig. We never mentioned it again. My girlfriend at the time brought her mom to that gig and Ma Dukes loved the insanity. She periodically asks my ex, “Hey whatever happened with that band—they were so different.” Burnt Sugar, baby.
The next release was the two-CD set Black Sex Y’all Liberation & Bloody Random Violets, which was at once the group’s most guitar-heavy work to date (“Fear” is practically thrash metal) and its most abstract, with multiple tracks heavily altered by the turntable work of Mutamassik, including a remix of The Rites. Tributes to influences and predecessors continued, as the first disc included a version of Miles Davis’s “Mtume” (from Get Up With It) followed by a howling interpretation of “Driva Man/Freedom Day,” from the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.
Black Sex Y’all seems to be more of a “rock” record than the albums before it — was that something conscious going into the sessions, or did it emerge as the music was created?
JN: There’s plenty of rock all throughout the Burnt Sugar recordings. There might have been a few more rock songs on Black Sex, but to my knowledge it was just how Greg grouped the songs for that release. Also, as with the first recording, there is a back catalog of songs that, if it suits Greg’s vision for a release-in-the-making, can be added to the recently recorded tunes after sitting on the shelf for years.
GT: Oh, very conscious. Because we were still a three-guitar band at that point, but one that had become a three-guitar, two-vocalist, one turntablist, four-horn band — so the sound was massive and had to accommodate a lot of wide frequencies and big, freaky personalities. I think that record was about letting all the extremes in the band out the box.
Was it recorded all together, or was there leftover material from previous sessions that was put in with new stuff?
GT: Some stuff was recorded in between the trilogy and The Rites, some stuff right after The Rites, and there’s even a Rites remix on there DJ Mutamassik did with a KAOS pad. She’s all over that record. After we made it, in fact, she and our guitarist, Morgan Michael Craft, got married, had a baby and moved to Tuscany. We lost two of our most hardcore experimentalists in one matrimony with that one.
As befits a band that’s all about the moment, Burnt Sugar has a number of live albums in its catalog. The first was Not April in Paris, which documented a single gig recorded in Bobigny, France in March 2004. That was followed by the two-CD set If You Can’t Dazzle Them with Your Brilliance Then Baffle Them with Your Blisluth, which excerpted four other performances from the same time period — two in Europe (Bordeaux, France and San Sebastian, Spain) and two in New York (at the now-defunct club Tonic and at the annual Vision Festival; I was present for the latter). The most recent is Live from Minnegiggle Falls, recorded at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, also in 2004 though the disc didn’t come out until 2007.
The live releases — Not April in Paris, If You Can’t… and Live from Minnegiggle Falls — two of them are full-show documents and the other pulls at least half of its material from performances outside of America. Does Burnt Sugar work better out of town than at home in NYC?
GT: I wouldn’t say that exactly. We had many killin’ shows at Joe’s Pub, Central Park, Tonic, Zebulon — but we do get better sound systems outside of New York. With all the sonics and personnel, you do get a more clarified picture of the band when everyone has their own mic and monitor mix. Pretty normal outside of America, almost laughable to even request in NYC, except at the Pub, Lincoln Center, or Central Park. In Canada and Europe you don’t need a concept to get booked at a well-equipped venue. New York being a Broadway kind of town, they like you to rehearse and package even your free jazz sets to death. In Europe they get more excited when they know you’ve thrown away your playbook. That live in Paris album sounds as orchestral and rehearsed as The Rites, but it’s 75 minutes of stream-of-consciousness Conducted improv. I chalk it all up to monitor mixes and a Parisian audience who loved that nobody knew what was going to happen next, especially the band. Course, the other cool thing about Europe is, ain’t no thang for 600-800 folks, Mom, Dad, the kids and Grandma, to show up to hear Conducted improv in a high-tech theatre on a cold February night. Imagine the Vision Festival packing Alice Tully Hall for 30 nights in the dead of winter. Socialist culture at its finest.
JN: Actually, those two recordings [Not April in Paris and Live from Minnegiggle Falls] are unedited, in-real-time performances. The Dazzle recording contains live performances from four different gigs. Burnt Sugar might be in more of a “working in the lab” frame of mind when playing in the NYC, which definitely was the case with our engagements at Tonic and then later Zebulon. Whereas when on the road, due to time limitations, we were forced to make an impression, displaying the fruits of our “lab work” within a predetermined time frame. No such time restrictions exist for us in the NYC, reasonably speaking.
Burnt Sugar’s fourth and fifth studio releases, the two-CD set More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion and Making Love to the Dark Ages, were more musically conventional and seemingly more thematically unified than anything the band had done before. More Than Posthuman was Burnt Sugar’s answer to classic R&B and soul, while Making Love found the group nodding to Miles Davis one more time on “Thorazine/81,” adding acoustic post-bop into the group’s thick, swirling acoustic/electric funk stew. The latter disc was also the only Burnt Sugar album not to be completely self-released, coming out on the LiveWired label.
More Than Posthuman was a much slicker and more polished album than anything the group had done before. How did the process differ for that record? Were the songs pre-written?
GT: Some were, but some were concocted or completed in the studio. MTPH was our twisted version of an Earth, Wind & Fire record. That’s the only studio album we didn’t record at Peter Karl’s joint. It was actually done in a small project room in DUMBO where you could only record bass, drums, keys, and then overdub vocals, horns and lead guitars. So lots of overdubbing over many weeks was the deal there. We had also morphed into a three-singer, one-guitar band by that point, so I wanted to show off the singers more. The material wasn’t put in front of the band, even lyrics for singers, until right before we hit the play button. So it was still a seat-of-the-pants, one- or two-take process in effect. Even the string arrangement on the title track was something our violinist, Mazz Swift, knocked out in about an hour. I mos def spent more time mixing MTPH than recording it though. The engineer was this real hip young rock keyboard player, Eric, who threw loads of great ideas at me. That was also the first album where other folks got to bring in tunes. Rene Akan gave us two and Jared and Bruce brought in three doozies.
JN: This was the first record that we cut in a piecemeal fashion, partially due to the smallness of the studio used for that recording. In this instance Greg really wanted to work with Eric Ronick at his Thin Man Studio, which consisted of a small recording room that could hold four to five players at a time and an even smaller control room, so Greg would call various players to track at different times and then put the tunes together after basic recording was completed. Whereas previously at Peter Karl’s, we could record as many as 15 players at the same time.
Making Love to the Dark Ages is also fairly polished, compared to the trilogy and Black Sex. Is this the future direction of Burnt Sugar? Will there be a strong bifurcation between the live experience and the studio CDs? More so than before?
GT: Dude, when I read that question at first, I thought OMG, he thinks Making Love sounds “polished”? But remember what I said earlier about digital sounds being our index for modernity now? I think that’s what you’re hearing as “polished” — that heavier presence of loops on that record. Because most of it is still built upon one- or two-take studio jams — some over a couple of my GarageBand tracks, one from a loop taken out of this jam on Method Man’s “Bring the Pain.” But the longest cut on there, “Chains and Water,” was recorded in one take with about 14 players in one room and a few horn, harmonica and piano overdubs tossed on a week later. All the material on that record was cut and mixed real fast. Way more like the first album than More Than Posthuman I think. My use of GarageBand may be where the illusion of “polish” is coming from — locked and loaded, virtual beats will cast that spell. As for the bifurcation of the raw and the cooked, I am using GarageBand loops more often live now — especially in Burnt Sugar/DANZ. I’ve learned how to improvise with them and sometimes just flip one on without even listening to it first. Keeping hope and indeterminacy alive.
JN: I think our new album is the direction we are headed in; when you hear it you’ll know what I mean, as I feel we stay true to our roots and push the envelope into the 23rd Century at the same time.
Has the shift away from structured improvisation and toward more traditional composition come with the departure of early members, or did it cause some players to wander away?
JN: From the beginning, being an ensemble that is more concerned with its musical impression rather than its commercial success, players who’ve led their own groups or performed in a number of different ensembles were welcomed into the Sugar and encouraged to continue doing whatever their musical hearts desired outside of the Sugar. The fact that all musicians who have performed in Burnt Sugar except for Greg and myself are independent contractors should be self-explanatory in the openness of the group. Players come, players go, players come back, players refer other players, new players arrive, new players go, new players suggest other newer players and on and on. Till I believe we have an extended family of around 70 players to date, and everyone is welcome to return, and then leave again and then…I think you get the idea.
GT: Morgan Michael Craft is probably the only cat who became ideologically opposed to playing anything but in-the-moment improv, and tunes per se. But in ten years we’ve had two core members leave the band because of marriage and relocation, two leave because of illness, two leave to pursue other occupations. Whereas other great folks like Matana Roberts and Vijay Iyer were obviously always on loan and had bigger fish to fry with their own music and multiple ensemble projects. What’s happened over the past two years, though, has been strange, wonderful and unexpected — and caused something of a break from our normal routine. See, we got tapped to do these three major repertory projects. Melvin Van Peebles asked us to help him turn his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song into a stage opera in the winter of 2009. We debuted that in Paris in February of 2010, playing all Melvin’s original music. That same year, the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem asked us to develop a James Brown program that became an original music theatre piece we call Indomitable: James Brown. That was done in collaboration with director Patricia McGregor and this amazing young actor/singer, Brandon Victor Dixon. You’ll be hearing a lot about him soon as Ray Charles on Broadway. After that, Lincoln Center’s Bill Bragin — longtime supporter of the band since he was booking Joe’s Pub and Central Park SummerStage — really loved this idea we had of doing an all-David Bowie program. Vernon Reid played on that gig and just produced the album version in Ivan Julian’s studio (yeah, the Ivan Julian of Richard Hell and the Voidoids). That’s going to be our most unabashedly rock ’n’ roll record, trust me. Then our favorite festival presenter in Paris, Leda Le Querrec of Sons d’hiver — she had seriously invested in making the Sweetback opera happen — well, she asked us to put together an evening of Melvin, electric Miles and James Brown. After that, Freedome Bradley of City Parks’ theatre wing asked us to do the JB show for two nights in Bed-Stuy. Then this cat asked us if we’d bring it to Rikers Island Prison. Hell yeah! Then the Black Rock Coalition asked us to fulfill a commitment they couldn’t, to do an evening dedicated to black women songwriters for a Deepak Chopra event up in Lincoln Center’s corporate theatre. So basically, and hilariously enough, the most wild-ass freeform groove band in New York has spent the last two years becoming a first-call 1970s soul, funk and rock tribute band! (Yes, I am waiting for those wedding gig offers to pour in.) Don’t get me wrong — we’ve had a blast surrendering to the spirit and letter of all those masters’ musics, and the experiences have made us a stronger, tighter, more attached-at-the-hip band for sure, musically, tribally, you name it. But we’re only now getting freed up again to go back to our roots in pure looney-tune Conducted improv. The next Burnt Sugar album, All Ya Need That Negrocity, has plenty of old-school BS longform improv on it — some over more GarageBand loops, some stuff cut with umpteen people in the studio, and a couple of bent and caramelized covers. With all those obligations to do justice to other people’s music behind us, we can finally get back to square one. And return to making music my iTunes labels “Unclassifiable.”
How and why did Making Love come to be released on an actual label?
JN: We were approached to be part of a new label concept with a number of other players we respected, Melvin Gibbs for one, and after agreeing with the label’s concept for sharing revenue, decided we’d give it a one-release try. The new recording is back to our self-financed, self-promoted model and it’s possibly our strongest recording to date. I think that speaks for itself too.
GT: Hey, whatcha trying to say Phil — our label truGROID (now re-launched as AvantGroidd) is an actual label too — it just happens to only have one act: us! Our friend Charles Blass, formerly of WKCR, another longtime supporter of the madness that is BS and now married, fathering kids, and living in Sweden, partnered up with his buddy Colin, a music lover and successful architect. Together they formed the LiveWired label and asked us if we could give them an album of already recorded stuff. At the time, I was in the middle of mixing and recording a triple album version of Making Love, the concept being one album of madcap improv, one album of oddball covers — Iggy Pop, Joni Mitchell, Method Man, Betty Davis, Slave — and a third album of slick, original girl-group pop stuff with crunk and trunk beats. Colin and Charles showed up as I was hemorrhaging money over a cliff with that absurdly undercapitalized vision. The album you have is the brutally abridged version of my dream.
Making Love was compiled from multiple recording sessions, too. How much is typically recorded at a session? Is everything preserved and are, say, rhythm tracks from earlier sessions combined with horn or guitar or string parts from a later session?
JN: If the tape is running, it’s preserved; there have been a few things that went up in the ether due to the tape not running, but, alas, that’s how it goes sometimes. This band loves to play, and at the drop of a hat we can come up with a mad amount of fresh off-the-top-of-the-dome material. As far as how the tracks are flipped, we do the playing and leave Greg alone to do the conceptualizing.
GT: We’ve cut as many as ten different songs in one four- to six-hour session—some full-length versions, some just fragments. But as I said earlier, most of what you hear on our records was done in one or two takes. The all-Bowie record Vernon just produced was done like that too—everybody in the room; horns, lead and backing vocals corrected as needed so there’d be no need for booking a long overdub session later. Band flew through 12 arrangements in two days, old-school like a mutha. End of the day, though, these are top-of-the-line New York City session and gig musicians — their bread and butter is learning whole sets in a matter of hours and then playing exactly the way each bandleader wants it played, in every style under the sun. That’s the only way you eat as a sideman in this town over the long haul. Burnt Sugar is where they get to unwind, relax, stretch out, tickle that fancy with like-minded renegade company. George Clinton once said P-Funk sounded the way it did because he told cats, “Everything they told you not to play over there is what I’m paying you to play up in here.” Burnt Sugar, baby.
Burnt Sugar‘s latest album, Angels Over Oakanda, is out now. Get it on Bandcamp.
An exclusive track from the sessions, “Oakanda Spoonful,” appears on the Burning Ambulance Music compilation Eyes Shut, Ears Open. Get that on Bandcamp, too.