Burnt Sugar Refits '70s Jazz

Back to the future is more than just the premise for a couple of cheesy movies starring Michael J. Fox. It's also the path that guitarist, bandleader, and critic Greg Tate would have jazz take, if that art form is to survive as anything more than a museum piece. Not for him the orderly perfection of the neotraditionalists; instead, he'd rather jazz returned to the creative chaos of the 1960s and early '70s, when musicians were free to make a mess and in the process sometimes come up with new ways of hearing.

Listening to Tate's band Burnt Sugar, it's easy to hear that its primary inspirations are Miles Davis's Bitches Brew period and jazz-fusion experimentalists Weather Report, with hints of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix creeping in around the edges. But that doesn't mean the music sounds dated. As Tate notes, many of the pop innovations of our time were pioneered by jazz musicians more than 30 years ago.

"Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul--all the music they did in the '70s, it sounds as modern as anything anyone is doing on laptops today," he contends, calling from his New York City home. "You know, it's a way of hearing, an application of technology to technology. And what's interesting is that all their innovations have found their way into digitally produced music, whether it's techno or house or clicks, cuts, and scratches."

But the 11-piece Burnt Sugar, which plays Sonar on Sunday (September 19), has a secret weapon that allows it to short-circuit some of the more self-indulgent tendencies of '70s jazz. It's called conduction, a blend of conducting and improvisation that allows a bandleader to craft large-scale spontaneous compositions on-stage, using hand signals to cue different musicians or musical strategies. Though jazz big-band leaders have always used gestural movement to control their flocks, conduction is a more flexible and sophisticated system, and it was devised by Tate's long-time friend, composer and cornetist Butch Morris.

"I've been watching Butch do it ever since he embarked on working with David Murray's big band, kind of inserting the system into David's music," Tate explains. "And I was at the first formal conduction that he did at the Kitchen [a New York arts space], back in 1985. And of course it was astounding to see somebody working that way, where you're essentially pulling together an ensemble that is composed of players from every scene, every genre, and kind of treating them like jigsaw-puzzle pieces that you're kind of throwing in the air and assembling while they fall down. And I just remained intrigued."

Part of what intrigued Tate was the way that conduction, combined with digital sampling technology, allows for the on-stage re-creation of techniques that were once possible only in the recording studio. He cites the pioneering efforts of producer Teo Macero, a Miles Davis collaborator and trained arranger, who would record Davis's jam sessions, then stitch and splice them together into what we heard on records like In a Silent Way or On the Corner.

"Now the technology has advanced to the point where modern musicians can think about doing a lot of those things live, with delays and reverb," he says. "And I really was intrigued by the dynamic of the electric and the acoustic bass. Miles was really on to something with using those together. The acoustic bass gives the music this weight, while the electric just has this bounce and this buoyancy that we respond to from years and years of hearing Sly and Funkadelic and Larry Graham, all those folks."

In addition to Jared Michael Nickerson and Jason Di Matteo on electric and acoustic bass, respectively, the touring version of Burnt Sugar also includes trumpeter Lewis "Flip" Barnes, guitarist Rene Akan, singers Jeremiah and Omega Moon, Qasim Naqvi on drums, Bruce Mack on synthesizer, Mazz Swift on violin, and Julia Kent on cello.

"There's a reason why musicians all over the world are drawn to jazz: it's a way to do both things, the folk thing and the modern thing," he says. "But I think that some of that really got lost in the jazz in the 1980s. I think it became much more parochial, much more insular, and much more cliquish, too. So if I have any kind of quiet agenda going on with this band, it's that I wanted to create a space where African-American musicians can experiment.

"I'm really just disappointed with what so many of the younger black players, players under 40, are doing with the kind of power and access and recording contracts that they have," he adds. "It's just a little too timid. So Burnt Sugar is definitely my stab at saying, 'There is another way.' I'm not saying, 'We are the way' but I do think there are players who want to work without the shackles on."