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Burnt Sugar Redefines Jazz & Hiphop

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BURNT SUGAR A floating mass of jazz & hiphop.
Burnt Sugar
Fri Sept 17, Lo_Fi Performance Gallery, 10 pm, $10.

Early last year, MIT professor Alexander G. Weheliye pointed out that R&B is given very little critical attention, whereas hiphop is inundated with academic papers that examine its history, social aspects, and cultural impact. Even journalists don't give R&B the serious attention they instantly grant hiphop. There is one reason for this: His name is Greg Tate.

In August of 1981, Greg Tate began writing for the Village Voice. He had recently moved to New York City from Washington, D.C., where he studied at Howard University. For nearly 25 years, Tate's writings in the Voice have functioned as a bridge upon which the established tradition of jazz criticism has crossed into the emerging practices of hiphop criticism. Such a bridge was never built for R&B; it never had a champion like Tate to make the connections and invent a critical language. Tate is the first important hiphop critic, and is also the last important jazz critic (not Stanley Crouch).

A few months ago, Tate stepped down from the heavy obligations of a staff writer to the lighter commitments of a contributing writer for two reasons: to open up more time for book projects and for a musical concept called Burnt Sugar. Releasing its first CD in 2000, Blood on the Leaf, Burnt Sugar is a band that transforms Tate's long-established theories about jazz and hiphop into life. The band is a living theory. It makes the kind of music that Tate wants to write about; music he can't find in stores or online. Essentially, but by no means totally, Burnt Sugar reengages jazz--a genre where there hasn't been anything interesting done since the early '70s, and which is presently stifled by traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis--and reengages hiphop, which has abandoned much of its initial inspiration, to break new ground and take real risks.

"I definitely reached a point of exasperation just waiting for the some of the younger African American cats to make a real dynamic push, in terms of experimentation, innovation, in terms of working with new technologies," he explains over the phone from his Harlem apartment. "Also, I wanted African American musicians to acknowledge the innovation of the '60s and '70s. And then there is the timidity. These guys are just trying to hold onto their record contracts. Like hiphop, jazz is dictated from boardroom down. And it's choking the life blood out of African American music."

The size of Burnt Sugar varies from 15 to 20 players, and some of the musicians have been associated with Tate since the early '80s, when he and Vernon Reid (guitarist for the once hugely popular Living Color) helped found the Black Rock Coalition. Greg Tate is Burnt Sugar's conductor. "I use a method called conduction," he explains. "It is a system developed by Lawrence 'Butch' Morris, and it allows me to work in an environment where I've got acoustic instruments, electric instruments, virtual sounds, and instruments from other cultures. And by using certain baton gestures I can work with a large group without really fusing things. I can bring all of these people together and create something that sounds big."

Burnt Sugar sounds like a big cloud. To watch Tate conduct this floating mass of music must be like watching a man trying to land a cloud onto an aircraft carrier. Like a cumulus, Burnt Sugar has a shape but no center. It is a society of instruments producing a dissonance that can be magical or tragic. It takes a lot of bravery to make this kind of music because it's hard to tell where it starts and how it will end. "Conduction is also about memories," Tate explains. "I can signal a memory in the song and at certain moments when I feel something, have that memory return by moving the baton in a certain way..." These memories are like flashes from the depths of dark, gathering clouds.

It's easy to see how many will criticize Tate's band for being too theoretical, but what actually is wrong with that? What's wrong with theory, especially when it attempts to answer an actual problem? "I don't want be so arrogant as to say Burnt Sugar is the answer," says Tate. "But I do see it as an example of taking a road less traveled."

charles@thestranger.com

 

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