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Somnambule - Writing About Music

Burnt Sugar

7th May 2005, The Marquee

Burnt Sugar is a shifting host of NYC-based musicians centred around Greg Tate, the group’s musical director, organiser, polemicist and conductor. Over the course of eight albums since their debut in 2000, Tate has conjured an unpredictable, abstracted hybrid of different musical forms including breakbeat, funk, soul, blues, jazz and so on using Butch Morris’s conduction technique. Burnt Sugar evinces a breadth of ambition that’s signally impressive. At the heart of their music is a crusading assertion of the vitality of live performance to forge new possibilities in the face of the riptide of the digital and the programmed. Burnt Sugar are a small army bent upon saving souls from the predetermined.

Tonight the group are 13-strong, a leaner formation than their last, debut appearance in the UK in 2003. They’re playing at the peripatetic Marquee, recently hunkered down in Leicester Square. Unfortunately the group have landed at short notice and with little promotion. As a result the crowds swarming like slow-motion moths outside aren’t warming themselves inside. Undeterred Burnt Sugar slip into their set gently with an ebbing, flowing rhythm that gradually picks up momentum until it becomes a loping breakbeat chant: hymnal, scarified and mantra-like. A momentary pause and a new track births another new shape: percussion trio with trumpet. The wah’ed slurs of Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes’ solo invokes the spirit of 70’s Miles Davis - one of the group’s pantheon of spiritual ancestors – before other members of the Sugar cast/crew/family are signalled to join in by Tate. There’s no sign of regular keyboard players Vijay Iyer or Bruce Mack, but three singers stand abreast towards the centre of the stage. They invoke an unearthly sense of crepescular soul, both individually and together as a miniature chorus.

[Digression: The rightmost singer wears bug-eye shades as tattoos swim down his bare arms. His voice identifies him as Justice Dilla-X whose most remarkable performance is documented on 2001’s ‘Bas (Kis)’. On this track guitars maintain a firestorm attack that suddenly falls away - Justice continues acapella until his defiant freestyling falters - he acknowledges the failure and goes on hesitantly revealing real courage. The tension and humanity of that performance is formidable. Tonight his is a frequently forbidding and magnetic stage presence.]

Burnt Sugar are unhurried, they’re going to take as long as they need to. There are also remarkably few solos, this is a determinedly group music. There’s a strong feeling of music being drawn out of darkness, of history being unearthed – not in order merely to display it, to emptily show it off – but to deal with its heritage, to rediscover and remould it and thereby project it into the future, Art Ensemble/Sun Ra/Miles/Funkadelic/... style.

Dizzie’s difficult-not-to-recognise anthem Night In Tunisia, appears, wisps of its melody fluttering like proud tatters as it launches into the elsewhere before returning, departing and returning again. The group’s not-so-secret weapon guitarist Rene Akhan, dressed like an outré pirate has mostly lurked at the back of the stage. At a signal from Tate he instantaneously ratchets up the pressure with squalling storms of noise. Bodies begin to move, sway and grind. People grin. As the wall of sound ceases, Tate who has stood besuited centre-stage facing the group for the duration, turns and smiles at the audience. Defiant and justifiably righteous though his journalism (most notably for the Village Voice) may sometimes be, he’s disarmingly affable as he introduces the musicians. As the encore finishes it’s felt like this wasn’t the group at full throttle, but neither has it felt like a moment’s been wasted.

The vast majority of the 507 albums by 247 artists lasting a total of 21 days, 3 hours, 7 minutes and 49 seconds on my iPod slot relatively neatly into one of a number of recognisable genres. So does Burnt Sugar. It’s called Sui Generis. Before the concert Leicester Square had seemed chaotic, walking home it seemed doubly so, yet its very heterogeneity feels newly like a blessing.

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me