Interview: Greg Tate of Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber
By J Hunter
Burnt Sugar’s website lists Greg Tate’s duties as “Conduction, Guitar, Bass Guitar, Laptop.” But if you get into his bio, you’re going to have to read a bit before you find anything about any music he himself created.
Long before Burnt Sugar came into being, Tate was a staff writer for The Village Voice, and his words have also appeared in everything from The Washington Post and The New York Times to Rolling Stone and JazzTimes. The Source named Tate one of the “Godfathers of Hiphop journalism,” and the list of people he’s interviewed makes envy gush out my ears in big green globs.
These days, though, he’s at the nerve center of Burnt Sugar (at Proctors in Schenectady at 7:30pm on Saturday), one of the most interesting bands to cross my path in many a year, and he was good enough to take time to talk about it with me:
Q: The full name of the band is “Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.” Is that last bit merely a play on “chamber orchestra,” or were you giving a shout-out to the late, great Sun Ra’s Arkestra?
A: Both answers are right, although there’s also a shout out there to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “36 Chambers.”
Q: The group was put together in 1999 as “a forum for the New York improvisational musician.” What was happening in the New York scene at that time that inspired the creation of the group?
A: We felt a need for a situation where contemporary improvisers from various schools and styles could freely practice musical alchemy without being restricted by genre or a set repertoire and let the music unfold in a real stream-of-consciousness way. Since our stream included a Conductor, there was also a bit of multiple brain surgery going on that used a baton instead of a scalpel.
Q: One phrase associated with Burnt Sugar is “conducted improvisation.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Adam Rudolph also did some of that on his last Moving Pictures disc, “Both/And.” How does the term apply to Burnt Sugar? Is it direction of tone and/or intensity, or (given the size of the group) is just down to traffic control?
A: Conduction is a system of about 26 baton and hand signals that the Conductor can use to re-compose, re-arrange and re-orchestrate any size and form and idiom ensemble in real time. I think of it as live improvisation’s answer to scoring on sheet music, turntables, samplers and Pro-Tools. It’s really that flexible, as it doesn’t preclude the Conductionist shouting, siinging, scatting, screaming or stomping out melodies, lyrics, riffs, rhythms or chord progressions. Conduction is theatrical by nature, so there’s a dramatic choreographic directorial element to it, and a traffic cop aspect as well. But you’ve got this magical Sorceror’s Apprentice conjuring musical spells from chaos and the void thing going on as well. So when you hear our live “Not April in Paris,” you’re hearing 75 tight tuneful minutes of shape-shifting improv, composing and orchestration, of which not one note had been rehearsed or played before we set foot on that stage.
Q: I just finished listening to (the latest Burnt Sugar album) “All Ya Needs That Negrocity,” and I feel like I’ve woken up from this amazing fever dream, going from one intense scene to the next without any breaks at all. Is that the effect you were shooting for with this disc?
A: We try to learn from the great DJs we’ve heard over the years – Afrika Bambaataa, Joe Clausell, Rich Medina, Bobbito, Jeff Mills, Reborn, Lynnee Denise, Questlove – who create a flow from song to song that feels symphonic and cinematic. So when we were sequencing this one, it was about emulating their seamless orchestration of various tracks into their own space-time continuum. Some of our favorite ’60s and ’70s albums also deployed segues in a real cinematic way: “A Love Supreme,” “Electric Ladyland,” “Bitches Brew,” Santana’s “Abraxas,” “Dark Side of the Moon”…
Q: The disc starts off with “The Cold Sweat Variations,” which takes James Brown’s tune to a very different place than where James had it. Did that piece come out of Burnt Sugar’s tribute show to Brown?
A: It actually came from these studio jam sessions we did the summer before the Brown project went down at the Apollo. Our pianist W. Myles Reilly came up with the basic arrangement; trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes Jr. and the drummer Qasim Naqvi fleshed it out, but we recorded it before they got too comfortable and locked it down. The version on the record has a speculative and intuitive quality that comes from everybody not quite being in total agreement about the spacing and timing with the bars and the breaks.
Q: Talk a little about the tribute shows the band has done, which have focused on everyone from Brown and David Bowie to Melvin van Peebles, who is the quintessential “renaissance man”: Writer, actor, filmmaker and composer. How did these shows come about? Did they come out of commissions from someplace like Chamber Music America, or did they grow organically out of the band itself – sort of, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”
A: New York is a funny place where you never know who’s been watching and taking notes. Melvin showed up at the Blue Note down in the West Village one night when we were doing a rowdy midnight jam. He told us later he loved all the folks in the band and that he got lucky with a lady that night – typical Melvin – and therefore wanted us to work with him on developing a stage version of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” There’s a festival in Paris we’ve been playing off and on for the last six years, Sons d’hiver. The musical programmer, Leda Le Querrec mostly curates four weeks of avant-garde and progressive music from the States. But she leaped at the chance to present Melvin and a 30-piece ensemble of actors, musicians and dancers for two nights. And thus we spent about two months rehearsing in Brooklyn with Melvin and then about a week in Paris. We still hope to get it up in NYC one day, major investors be willing.
The James Brown project came about because the Apollo Theatre folks called out of the blue one day and said they wanted us to develop a program of JB’s music for two nights. We brought in our favorite theater director Patricia McGregor, who brought in a wonderful young actor/vocalist/dancer named Brandon Victor Dixon to portray Brown. Thus was born “Indomitable – Burnt Sugar Freaks the James Brown Songbook.” We told some of Brown’s story though monologues, slide projections and music for a 90-minute musical drama experience.
In regard to David Bowie, Bill Bragin at Lincoln Center – who’s been a big supporter of the Black Rock Coalition and Burnt Sugar from when he was booking Joe’s Pub – asked for an idea last winter, and I said, “David Bowie”… which seemed a properly surreal and logical leap from the artsy-funky ledge of Van Peebles and Brown. Next up we’re doing a Steely Dan for Bragin; that idea came from Vernon Reid who’s been bugging us about being let loose to creative direct the Sugar for about three years now…
Q: Apart from “Cold Sweat” and “I’ve Seen That Face Before,” all the pieces on the disc are group compositions. What’s the creative process like with Burnt Sugar? Do people come in with full-fledged ideas, or do pieces just develop out of the “Keith Jarrett solo piano” mode (Start with a chord and see where it goes)?
A: Man, just about every method you can imagine: From completely composed-through pieces that various writers bring to the band; to pieces we jam and “Conduction” into form in the studio off of a few chords or a bassline; to other pieces we build-up in layers of overdubs over several sessions; and various combinations of all those approaches. The studio is definitely the Fifth Beatle in this band – or, I guess, more like the 27th Beatle…
Q: The piece that really got to me was Lisa Teasley’s spoken-word piece “The Guru Lover.” What came first: The music, or the poetry? Also, you return to the poem at the end of the next tune “Claudine.” Was that something you planned to do, or did it just seem like a logical way to end a piece that gets seriously cataclysmic?
A: I’ve known Lisa Teasley for about two decades now and have been a big fan of her triple-threat poetry and fiction and painting work. I asked her to create something original for us about four years ago. She wrote that poem and sent us an mp3 of her reading. I had this piece of music I’d developed in Garage Band called “Claudine,” and thought they’d make a good match. About a year later, we were in the studio developing a batch of new material, and I pulled that loop out again and had Flip Barnes (trp), Harald Kisiedu (tenor), Swiss Chris (drums), Mike Veal (bass) and Bruce Mack (keys) jam on it at length. In the studio, we merged the two together – Lisa’s reading and the long improv.
Now here comes the part where things got a bit spooky cataclysmic. My girlfriend Diedra’s oldest sister Claudine passed away while we were mixing the album. I wasn’t thinking of her when I created that track, but sometimes I’ll name my garage loops after the first word that pops into my head after they’re done. For some reason that day four years ago the word was “Claudine.” After Claudine’s funeral, Diedra found out. Claudine had had tickets to go see the Dalai Lama speak on the day after she made her transition. I didn’t originally have the poem coming back, but Diedra heard the instrumental and said it made her happily imagine her sister’s spirit going on for eternity after she’d left life on earth. Overlaying the final verses of the poem seemed poignant at that point.
Q: Appearing on this disc is Vijay Iyer, who I believe is one of the most exciting jazz pianists to come a long in a great long while. Has Vijay worked with Burnt Sugar before? What was it like incorporating his style, which I’ve heard described (rightly or wrongly) as “mathematical”?
A: Actually, Vijay is one of the original members of the band! He was in on the first studio jam sessions we did as an experiment back in the summer of 1999. He appears on several other Burnt Sugar albums starting with our 1999 debut “Blood On The Leaf.” He’s a very, very busy man these days, but he’ll always makes time for us if our studio dates and his days off converge. Same goes for one of our other original members that made good, the Roots’ guitar phenom Kirk Douglas. Vijay’s got degrees in physics and math from UC Berkeley and Yale, so writers who know that sometimes take the easy route and call his music “mathematical.”
But playing and composing jazz, or really any music on a virtuoso level, has always required a mathematical mind. Music on the page is nothing but math! But the thing with Vijay is he always plays whatever’s just right for the context; so if we’re jamming on some disco vamp, he’ll sound like all he knows is disco, and if we’re extracting a motif from Stravinsky he’ll play it as written. And then, of course, he can bebop and freebop with the best of them, too. Certain people connected to this band – like Vijay, Mazz Swift, Jared Michael Nickerson, Ben Tyree, V. Jeff Smith, La Frae, Lisala, Vernon – are complete musicians. There’s nothing you can throw at them musically – on paper or in the air – that they can’t deal with instantaneously like masters. They also teach.