Experiments Conducted: Burnt Sugar’s More Than Posthuman, and Not April in Paris, and Blood on the Leaf

By Daniel Garrett

Burnt Sugar
The Arkestra Chamber
More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion
Executive Producer: Jared Michael Nickerson
Recording: Eric Ronick; and Mixing: Tate and Ronick
Burnt Sugar Index Publishing
TruGroid, 2006

Burnt Sugar
Not April in Paris (at Banlieues Bleues)
Conductor, Producer: Greg Tate
Executive Producer: Jared Michael Nickerson
Burnt Sugar Index Publishing
TruGroid, 2004

Burnt Sugar
Blood on the Leaf
Conductor: Greg Tate
Engineer: Peter Karl
Medusa Oblongata Publishing
TruGroid, 2000

The dream of bohemia is seductive, as is the dream of being an innovative artist. Burnt Sugar, a large band of musicians, is one group that can seem to be living such dreams, and that is inspiring and it also encourages questions. Is the group—its central figure is musician and writer Greg Tate, who writes some of its compositions and conducts the band—one that is allowed to embody a group aesthetic? Does the group express or produce collective knowledge? Is the reality of the group’s work enough to satisfy the expectations raised by the dreams it seeks or seems to represent? The most interesting piece of music on Burnt Sugar’s More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion is strong because of its literary—rather than musical—composition and its assertion of a coherent, intelligent, and singular perspective, that of a girl-turned-woman: “Enjoy Being Visible,” featuring Akiba Solomon. Solomon resists the common responses of men. Unfortunately, some of the other pieces embody those responses—in perspective, in language. It seems that the most radical thing is still being an individual, especially being an individual woman. What is Burnt Sugar’s purpose? Is it intended that the group’s music express emotions—or articulate ideas—or simply be interesting sound? The live performance of Burnt Sugar, as captured on Not April in Paris, seems to have been a satisfying, though not particularly startling or surprising, experience. It is interesting to return to the promise of an earlier recording, Blood on the Leaf, in which it seemed the band—allusive, informed by tradition, but creative and focused—might go anywhere, become anything. I cannot claim the band has failed to fulfill its promise, as More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion is a work of large range—in terms of sound, in terms of the number of issues addressed—but the problem with being promising is that different people read that promise in different ways.

“Other Arrangements,” the first song on the first disk of the two-disk set More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion, is about the end of a relationship, and it has a lively rich sound, featuring singers Lisala Beatty and Jeremiah Griffin, but it is hard to identify a center in the music, a jazzy rhythm and blues. It is hard to hear—literally hard to hear, as in hard to identify—the lyrics of “God Is Black,” with vocals by Justice Dilla-X, and near the song’s end is the piano-playing of Myles Reilly, playing that is the best part of the song. Elements of rock, soul, jazz, and funk, and a good female vocal, are in “Juliette and Romeo,” with Lewis Barnes Jr. on trumpet and Chris Eddleton on drums and the rhythms of several guitars. People play at romance—at being lovers, but a woman refuses to be a man’s savior or easy affair, though he comes close to fitting her fantasy in “Juliette and Romeo.” In the song “Naomi’s Lullaby,” featured is the alto saxophone of Matana Roberts, which sounds great, and is accompanied by a distant, patient—resolute, sober—bass (Jared Michael Nickerson, the song’s composer). A lovely Asian sound—is it chanting or humming?—by Lisala Beatty begins the piece called “Kungfucious,” which is, at first, mellow, subtle music, featuring Trevor Holder’s drumming, and lyrics about truths that can and cannot be told, and which includes a (Demax) rap. There are lines about a woman on the edge (“she is bipolar, she’s a mess”), someone who seems taken advantage of, and the music develops to reflect that drama. The singer Somi participates in the first of two versions of “Enjoy Being Visible,” which has African-sounding percussion: and it sounds as if she is singing “listen only to the action” and “we are perfect women” and “entertaining our destructions.” Obviously, More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion is full of suggestion and is generous in its offerings: but, does it have a center? Does it need a center? Is a center the same as a purpose? Is plenitude, like complexity, its own purpose? Is the ability to perform varied impersonations the same as having a personality? The 1960s rock group Jefferson Airplane performing jazz: that’s what “The Ballad of FEMA, Katrina and Satchmo” brought to mind; and with lyrics and vocals by Mazz Swift (hard to discern lyrics), it has Micah Gaugh’s alto (a flutey sound from saxman Gaugh, who has performed with Mark Ribot and Cecil Taylor). I found “AR Kandy (Blusher),” with vocals and lyrics by Justice Dilla-X, and a droning guitar and somewhat interesting drumming, a bit indulgent and hard to listen to, and hard to listen to as I did not find it particularly pleasing. “Disbanded Gypsies” is psychedelia, with Jeremiah Griffin’s rather keening voice and Omega Moon’s feminine rap, and it is distinguished by Lewis Barnes Jr.’s trumpet-playing amid the cacophony. Carl Hancock Rux reads from his novel Asphalt in the musical piece “The Final Daze,” a reading that mentions singer Jill Scott, and features sexual description and uses metaphors of fruit and landscape, as it pursues the details of loving, sweating bodies, bodies that visit each other’s contours; and it is a reading accented by a wailing saxophone and grinding guitar. “Stephanie’s Moodring” is some kind of jazz-rock and funk fusion, with a skittering instrumental (guitar and horn) rhythm and a large blunt drum sound, and the lyrics and voice of Micah Gaugh: he produces a jazz vocal, experimenting with rough tones and high notes.

More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion’s second disk opens with a new interpretation of “Other Arrangements,” a very listenable mix, followed by Bruce Mack’s composition “Second Premonition,” which conveys tense apprehension, and then quiet speculation through wailing horns and a solitary piano. There is a triple-beat rhythm with the accent on the third beat in “Sleep Is the Cousin of Def,” a song featuring horns, and a rhyming and cursing rap (Beans), a rap that offers a critique of other raps. There is a sense of raised temperature, of heat and trouble in the song, and it would be more impressive if hysteria and rage did not seem, already, default positions in much contemporary music. One can argue that the factors (bureaucratic order, limited social options) involved in contemporary life encourage extreme responses—except that there hardly seem to be any other responses, such as invention and logic and patience, and there is little insightful examination in most people’s conversations, or in the song, regarding what the fundamental cultural conditions actually consist of, and what is to be preferred to them. An attempt is made to name one of the problems in “Gentrification,” with a Carib-accented rapping vocal, which talks about being priced out of property, but, again, assertive attitudes are not an adequate substitute for complex feeling or sophisticated thought (only idiots and people devoted to posing do not acknowledge that). With a title that alludes to a book by Franz Fanon and liner notes that point to Aime Cesaire’s poetry, “Wretched of the Earth Page 88” features more wailing, and more droning and whirling sounds: and I wonder, Shouldn’t a great poet inspire something different? Something much better is presented in the piece “Enjoy Being Visible” thanks to the words and voice of Akiba Solomon, who describes a twelve-year old girl sexually harassed by boys and men for her school uniform and bowlegged, pigeon-toed walk. How that twelve-year old girl lives on in the (hurt, insecure) woman she becomes in the present is memorably evoked; and is unanswerable by rhetoric or sentimentality (the only answer is change). It is clear that gender and sexual hatred, a hatred expressed in male power and male sexual desire, is not simply a personal inclination but a cultural tradition. That makes “Enjoy Being Visible” important and devastating work, the most significant contribution to More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion. That several pieces emphasize a woman’s perspective is the most affirmative fact regarding More than Posthuman, though woman as sufferer is a cliché. However, we are returned to the vulgarity of cursing in “Get A Life.” (I do not think that something that has become mundane in the world, such as cursing, can count for much in art: cursing is not inventive and it is not shocking. It is simply crude, and stupid.) With words and music by Tate, and Banks’s vocals, “To Sleep with Complicated Women” ends with the obvious question: “What other kind of women are there?” The most straight-ahead rock sound—with guitars and drums as focus and force—is offered in Rene Akan’s “Exhibit A,” and it’s surprising there is not more of this sound from a band associated with New York’s black rock music movement. The last three songs include “She’s Got Questions” and “Be4Real,” listed in opposite order in the liner notes, and “Goodyear Rubber,” with music heard through chatter.

Complicated women: what other kind of women are there? What of the men? What kinds of men are there? We, the general public, and we as searching individuals in different parts of the world, are familiar with men presented as active (as forceful flesh), as commenting, as desiring, as fighting, but we are less used to men as contemplative, as sensitive. We are used to men who produce images, and gestures, and rhetoric, for our approval. We are less familiar with men who explore ideas and experiences for themselves, as part of the affirmation of freedom and for the sake of knowledge. I found myself listening to the music of Burnt Sugar, wanting to hear more, wanting to hear something that would signify a truly intelligent and sensitive man. There is more in the world, and more to think about, than women’s tears and women’s bodies, the savoring of vulgar language, and malicious, pale bourgeoisie withholding property rights. Other subjects, include, and are not limited to: being, and existence; the land, water, sky, animals, fish and reptiles, and insects, of nature; language as shaper of perception and experience; silence and exile as respectable forms of dissent; the resources of intellect and spirit to be found in the world’s great established cultural traditions of art, literature, and music; international politics; the tyranny of religion; the daily world of work; the sometime subtle economics of friendship; and the self-sabotage of people who reject the richness of the world because it does not mirror the poverty of their lives, and stands as a humiliating accusation against their choices and that of their families and communities. Two fundamental questions for humanity, two questions that I think great artists and great works of art consider, are: How do we achieve community, or even consensus, despite the irreducible fact of our differences? And, How do we come to terms—ethical and practical—with human error, that of others and our own? One listens for what is there; and one listens for what is not there.

Burnt Sugar’s Not April in Paris is a live concert album, an unrehearsed performance recorded in Bobigny, France, on March 19, 2004; and it begins with Bruce Mack’s “Springtime for Chillun,” featuring furiously expressive jazz, with blaring horns, noise, and spoken words about being stopped and taken off a train. The musicians on Not April in Paris include Rene Akan on guitar, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Vijay Iyer on piano, Satch Hoyt on flute, Julia Kent on cello, Matana Roberts and Petre Radu-Scafaru on saxophones, and Mazz Swift on violin, among others, including electric bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, who has performed with the musicians The The and Freedy Johnston, whom I like. Marked by a light, stuttering rhythm, “Half Moon Flippers,” features a few notes from trumpet, piano, flute, and somewhat laconic drumming. (The performance’s drummers are Trevor Holder and Chris Eddleton.) There is a fragile suggestion of melody—introduced, truncated—followed by a whirling sound that is probably a synthesizer in “Jungle Fibre,” a piece with an undercurrent of sadness, as short strikes on the strings of cello and violin create a melancholy sound. A sultry energy, and a quick moaning rhythm is the character of “Jungle Fauvre,” a piece of melody with tension, interspersed with spoken words, that calls to mind Sly and the Family Stone and also Prince. In “Mazzafrique,” a mellow, pretty piece, Mazz Swift’s violin is prominent, and the percussion is clicking, ringing. There is a smooth transition from that to “Jeremiah the Gallic,” which has a murmuring (possibly French-accented) voice that reminds me of Nina Simone. Not April in April seems like a complete experience. An experience is an encounter, an event, and it is felt, and its meaning calibrated by the man or woman who has, or the men and women who have, the experience. A live performance of music, like any other experience, is not the same upon reflection, and not the same as a recording of the event, with its peculiar ebb and flow, its shifting engagement and power: the moment is gone, and the mind—or the spirit—works out its interpretation of the encounter among musicians, and between musicians and audience. The last five pieces of Not April in April—“Held in Faith,” “All Fall Down,” “Panpipes and Sprites,” “The Blood of Pomegranates,” and “Resurrection Rag”—do not seem as interesting, to me, as what came before. Yet, I like the music.

Don Thrasher, a musician (with Guided by Voices) and writer, described Burnt Sugar thusly in the publication In These Times: “The multicultural group, which fluctuates in size from 12 to 20 players, truly transcends musical and social boundaries. The players are male and female, black and white, Americans and natives of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Many of the musicians come from a free jazz background, but there are also veterans of rock, classical, big band jazz, hip-hop, Celtic and funk, among other styles. All of these influences figure heavily into Burnt Sugar’s genre-blending improvisational approach” (“Rebirth of the Cool,” November 28, 2004). Don Thrasher quoted Burnt Sugar’s conductor writer-musician Greg Tate’s words on bringing good musicians together and encouraging them to go beyond what they know; and on creating musical texture by conducting using jazz musician Butch Morris’s baton gestures. It would be wonderful to have more evidence of the band’s African, Asian, Celtic, and Middle Eastern influences, although the band as it is has its admirers and at least a small but significant public if one is to judge by press reports and travel stops, which have included Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as France. One press report: “Burnt Sugar’s music is oceanic, and there’s been no sight of a shoreline since they set sail in 1999,” said reviewer Colin Buttimer, when writing about Burnt Sugar’s year 2003 two-disk album Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets, for the BBC (bbc.co.uk). Buttimer wrote, “Initial listening to Black Sex Y’all in its entirety may be exhausting—no smooth studio jam or cold conceptual experiment, the level of ambition and concomitant length (almost 140 minutes) raises the spectre of indulgence, but breadth and scope are central to the group’s endeavour.” On the web pages of the online magazine Seeing Black, the esteemed historian and writer Robin D. G. Kelley wrote, “Burnt Sugar is Tate’s extension of Bitches Brew, what we might call his homage to Miles Davis. And he is committed to building on what Miles started in the late 1960s—groove-based, funky, free improvisation rooted in a true musical conversation rather than a dozen cats all talking at once. Tate, who plays guitar but primarily occupies the conductor’s spot, moves his musicians in and out of the groove in the manner of a DJ” (“The Sweet Funk of Burnt Sugar,” August 29, 2002). In addition to all of Burnt Sugar’s More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion, Not April in Paris, and Blood on the Leaf, I have heard some of Burnt Sugar’s Black Sex Yall and Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite (That Depends On What You Know). I share the understanding that Don Thrasher, Colin Buttimer, and Robin Kelley have of the nature of Burnt Sugar, but I am less inclined to share their sense of the group’s unquestioned triumph: “Burnt Sugar are musical revolutionaries intent on reviving jazz from its anemic state and injecting it with the depth, power and adventurousness of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and other kindred spirits,” wrote Thrasher; and Buttimer, who reviewed both Burnt Sugar’s Black Sex Yall and The Rites for the BBC and a live Burnt Sugar performance for “Somnabule” on EleventhVolume.com, wrote in the Black Sex review, “Burnt Sugar’s music acts as both reclamation and launch into the unknown,” and Kelley has stated, “Burnt Sugar (The Arkestra Chamber) is the big band of the new millennium.” Those may be sincere testaments; and, what’s more, they may be perceptive, though it is hard not to be made suspicious by the fact that those commentaries lack any negative assessment (whereas, Downbeat magazine described one of the band’s works as fresh but excessive). I am not an associate or an acolyte of Greg Tate nor of any member of Burnt Sugar, and while I find the group’s project of great interest, and admirably one of significant expanse, I have been listening also to Tori Amos, Arctic Monkeys, Patti Austin, Bloc Party, Brian Bromberg, Randy Crawford, the Dears, Michael Franti, Anthony Hamilton, Hole, Chaka Khan, Wynton Marsalis, Curtis Mayfield, Jason Moran, Nickel Creek, Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, Vieux Farka Toure, Bebo Valdés, and Neil Young, and I find those artists more entertaining, more relevant to my concerns, and more satisfying than I find Burnt Sugar. Yet, I suspect—against a lifelong conviction—that genius may rest with form rather than with sensibility or content, and that the ideas and perceptions regarding emotion and society that we find rare in art are those that anyone paying rigorous attention can discover but that creating a unique structure for a work, the invention of craft, requires the most unique creativity and imagination.

To be conservative means to be more concerned with quality than quantity, to be unafraid of being part of a minority, to seek ideals, and works, that support life and that last, to feel protective of a tradition of ideas, manners, rituals, and works found respectable and useful. To be conservative is not, necessarily, in opposition to freedom, especially not in the cultural history of America, a still young country. The founding giants of American literature are people such as Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain, artists who celebrated the land, celebrated human diversity, and celebrated individuality. The founding giants of American painting are artists such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. The founding giants of American music are artists such as Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Cage, and Chuck Berry. Those are individualists. Whatever respect American artists have given to European traditions, and other traditions, that respect has not been slavish and American artists have not confined themselves to irrelevant standards. It makes sense for Europeans, whose cultural traditions go back many centuries, to need official rebels, to require an advanced guard of cultural progress. American culture is a culture of individuality: and the serious artistic culture, rather than the popular entertainment, has been more liberal, more progressive, than the common people, if being progressive means expanding one’s range of experience, knowledge, and sympathy. Yet, what some American artists have done is to make an ideology of rebellion, to take on the mantle of the avant-garde, even in places and in times when no one stands in opposition to them as artists. There has been no significant repression or punishment for musicians who have wanted to explore jazz beyond the limits of ragtime, swing, or bebop, such as free jazz or fusion jazz, just as there has been no repression or punishment for those wanting to play rock, even ranting, spitting punk-influenced rock: instead such forms became dominant trends, just as the affirmation of self-indulgence and crime in rap music has become a dominant trend. That is the nature of America. However, what Americans are likely to refuse is not new experience—especially not new experience advertised as wild—but Americans are more likely to refuse knowledge of past achievements, knowledge of useful tradition. I listen to the work of Burnt Sugar, and I find it hard to believe that it comes as a surprise to anyone who has heard the full range of American music. Consequently, I ask not, How strange is this? but, What can this give me that I do not have already? The question to be asked of American music is not whether it is new, but, rather, Does this music fulfill the potential of music? Does it give us, whether as musicians or as music listeners, what we want or need?

The path to success, whether small or large success, can be paved by inheritance or by luck, but, it seems to me, it is most usually preceded by hope, intelligence, passion, discipline, and a plan, as well as resources. Burnt Sugar is to be commended for pursuing a path its members, apparently, consider vital to themselves, a journey that a small audience in different parts of the world has decided to share with the band. Burnt Sugar’s boisterous sound can be invigorating. I can salute the band for looking at musical tradition and not making more refusals of that great abundance than it has. However, the power of emotion in the music is more likely to come from a female voice, or female perspective, than anything else: and there is nothing new about women being a resource for feeling. It is, then, a special pleasure to find a more subtle beauty, a beauty of controlled instrumental sound, in Burnt Sugar’s year 2004 Not April in Paris and in the band’s early work Blood on the Leaf. Burnt Sugar’s Blood on the Leaf, which opens with “Steals A Kiss from the Merman” and “Harpoon,” was recorded mostly in 1999 and available in year 2000, and it seems to have been the first recording that Burnt Sugar produced for the public. I wonder if “Sirens of Triton” on Blood on the Leaf could be interpreted as a call, followed by consideration of that call, then dialogue and intrigue and dissolution. “Sirens of Triton” has chanting, percussion, little swirls of sound, deep bass notes, a flurry of piano notes, then an increase in noise in which one can hear still piano and bass, before there is a lowering of volume. In “Gnawalickenlallibella,” one of the more unusual names for a song, I suppose that the guitars could be said to sound gnawing—and that the piano is like something African, with each note seeming individual: and I recall that “Gnawa” music is a mix of African, Arabic, and Berber music. (“‘Gnawalickenlallibella’ opens in 6/4 time with Iyer’s steady arppegios overlaid with ‘choked’ staccato lines from electric guitar and synthesizer, giving the song the feel of needle on vinyl. Three minutes later here comes Swiss Chris banging out drum ‘n’ bass beats, until Tate moves the band into another mode where the guitars sound like sitars playing scales reminiscent of an Indian raga,” wrote Robin Kelley, SeeingBlack.com, August 2002.) On Blood on the Leaf is the musical piece “A Blood Sample from Errol Garner,” and then—featuring drum and guitar and spoken commentary about prophecy, foolishness, and loneliness—the work called “Justice X on the Flex.” The album’s title piece, “Blood on the Leaf,” is mellow, with piano and soft percussion (of course, some guitar squalls are added before the piece’s end). The 1999 incarnation of Burnt Sugar included Vijay Iyer on piano, Bruce Mack on synthesizer, Jason DiMatteo on acoustic bass, Jared Nickerson on electric bass, Morgan Michael Craft on guitar, Greg Tate on guitar, and singer Eisa Davis, among others. Blood on the Leaf concludes with the somewhat mellow “The Third Bleed” and the jumble of sounds that is “Spartacus Free the Slaves!” Blood on the Leaf is an attractive, compelling, and promising work. Has the group fulfilled that promise? In Blood on the Leaf the composition “Beloved,” which follows the song that gives the collection its title and precedes “The Third Bleed,” there is a rhythm—short, repetitive; both martial and incantatory— that is nearly exotic, and drama and tension are created, a complicated beauty, before the piece dissolves into something less distinguished. Could the band then—and is it able now—to discern what is most interesting in its work? I am not sure. I am out of observations and speculations, even out of adjectives; consequently, now, I go back to Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

Daniel Garrett, a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, has written music commentary that has appeared on the pages of AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com; and Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured on Offscreen.com. Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, work that could be read in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com