“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing quirk and sincerity, history and innovation, improvisation and structure—creating a distinctive hybrid groove that is both highly entertaining and remarkably profound.
Burnt Sugar has been grooving in various colorful and unique iterations since its formation in 1999, when bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and writer/instrumentalist/conductor Greg Tate got together to create “a forum for the New York area improvisational musician to compose, record and perform material which reflects the breadth and depth of American diasporan music in the 21st century.”
On display at Burnt Sugar’s April 26 Walker performance, the group’s musical trademark is the use of “conduction,” a style of conducted improvisation developed by renowned jazz musician and composer Butch Morris. Defined by Morris as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor,” conduction involves a system of gestures and signals that act as directives for the improvising musicians—for example, creating a “U” shape with the thumb and pointer finger indicates a repeat, and moving an outstretched palm up and down controls the volume of the players.
Taking on the conduction of Burnt Sugar’s Steely Dan performance at the Walker is Vernon Reid, renowned guitarist and founder of the Grammy award–winning group Living Colour. The collaboration between Reid and Greg Tate is not new—the two have been working together at least since 1985, when they co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization that aims to create “an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music” (from the group’s manifesto).
I had the chance to learn more about Burnt Sugar through an e-mail interview with band members Ben Tyree (guitar), LaFrae Sci (drums), Karma Mayet Johnson (vocals), and Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards), facilitated by the group’s co-founder and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson. Here’s what they had to say about performing with the innovative and unparalleled Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.
Part of Burnt Sugar’s trademark style is using Butch Morris’ conduction system “to make every performance a fresh interpretation of its constituent parts.” What is it like rehearsing, performing, and recording “conductions”?
Ben Tyree: It’s spontaneous and engaging and can really bring things out of the musicians and into the room that nobody could have imagined.
LaFrae Sci: We don’t necessarily rehearse conductions because that’s what keeps it fresh. We rehearse songs, and the conduction happens on the fly. It’s super fun and requires one keeping their eye on the ball (conductor) at all times.
Karma Mayet Johnson: Well, playing Steely Dan or James Brown or… we’ll run a form then bust out into conduction, sometimes pass the baton. Full-on Burnt Sugar conductions, where the music is conceived and built simultaneously onstage, happen(ed) more outside the context of a “set” and go more like intergalactic transmolecularization.
Leon Gruenbaum: Jazz used to be the place where one would be spontaneous—but that field of music has become rigid. Conduction allows us to embody that spirit of not knowing what is coming next—I believe when the performers are excited on stage with that feeling of discovery, it comes across to the audience in a big way.
So what happens when Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber takes on the Steely Dan songbook?
Tyree: We have fun with it and dirty it up a bit. Most of the [original Steely Dan] records were very polished and produced so it’s exciting to take the material into a live setting where we can really do our own thing with it.
Sci: I love how Burnt Sugar is so big [17 members], and when everyone brings their flavor, the collective result often casts the material in a new and compelling light for the listener, whether they are familiar with the song or what. Also, my definition of soul is to “put ones whole self into something.” Everyone in Burnt Sugar is so soulful, and the music we make becomes exponentially soulful.
There is a lot of hybrid, genre-defying, boundary-busting, creativity going on in your music. What’s it like to create something that’s uncategorizable?
Johnson: It’s indescribable.
Tyree: Well, the question can go right back to you: what’s it like listening to something that’s uncategorizable? You’re talking about a group of people who are individually uncategorizable overtly challenging personal and creative categorization from every approachable angle in a society that imposes category. The sound is only the result of a state of mind and lifestyle that we wish to convey is available to all.
Sci: Duke Ellington used to call his music “beyond category” because he was in every way. Every member of Burnt Sugar is beyond category and exceptional in some way, hence when we come together the music is too. We don’t set out to do this, it is what happens because we know how to surf up and down the musical tree from the spirituals into the future. If the blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits, we are the whole damn ecosystem.
According to your website, Burnt Sugar is “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.” It seems to me that Burnt Sugar is all about music, but not only music—what else is it about?
Tyree: It’s about a state of mind and lifestyle which the music is a result of. It’s also all about the LOVE.
Sci: Not only is Burnt Sugar about music, it’s […] a family, a tribe. We all enjoy each other, and we can have fun anywhere, on stage, back stage, in the airport, in the van… Everywhere.
Johnson: Paramount, a democratization of vibe, a predilection for Cosmic Funk as an ontology, and good shoes.
How has Burnt Sugar changed since 1999? Where is it going in the future?
Tyree: Who knows? Why not join us for the duration of this journey and we’ll all find out together?
It seems like the members of Burnt Sugar all have some other cool projects going on. What else should I check out?
Tyree: I would recommend Googling all of our names. We all have awesome projects. Personally, I have a group called BT3 which you’d probably love.
Sci: Every member of the band is a unique artist with a project. My own band is called the 13th Amendment. We do my arrangements of Negro Spirituals, and originals (here is a link of us live in Paris). Currently I’m in Siberia rehearsing for this.
Gruenbaum: You should check out Genes and Machines, which features my “samchillian” keyboard invention. Some of our music is based on players having repeating parts which are brought in and out in a spontaneous way with conducting cues, so each performance of a piece is an improvisation, structurally.
Johnson: #ROOTWOMAN Karma Mayet Johnson. I describe it as Burnt Sugar vocal member dropping 21st century Roots music.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber performs Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions on Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.