Around the outside

May 13, 2009 at 12:00 am

Burnt Sugar
Making Love to the Dark Ages


Code Zero
The Frequency of Nothing

Weightless Language Press

As a writer and critic for The Village Voice and other outlets over the years, Greg Tate has surveyed a creative diaspora that spans the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany and the Nigerian juju music of King Sunny Ade, George Clinton and Miles Davis and Public Enemy.

As a bandleader-musician, his influences and enthusiasms are likewise broad, yet he and his Burnt Sugar accomplices manage to convey a sound rather than a mix tape-mosaic. Key to this is conduction, a musical sign language (copped from the oughta-be-famous Butch Morris) that allows a bandleader to, in effect, direct improvisers creating on the fly much as one would conduct interpreters reading a score. Tate and Burnt Sugar have proved this can work for them in more than a dozen CDs on the Trugroid label. But with the relatively new LiveWired label handling this release, Making Love promises the band a long-awaited (and much deserved) visibility.

To say that Burnt Sugar has a sound shouldn't suggest it always sounds the same. Burnt Sugar can range from the deliriously abstract to conventional songcraft, even the occasional cover, and this outing samples much of the range. The opener, "Chains and Water," starts with a bluesy delivery of elliptical lyrics (is "never cottoned to no slavery" about lovers or politics?) and (over 20 minutes or so) morphs into an increasingly layered sonic landscape of searing horns and ion-storm electronics (from a 15-piece band including such notables as pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Matana Roberts); then it all ends in a loose small-group-plus scat rendition of the jazz standard "52nd Street Theme."

Other highs include "Love to Tical" with blazing guitar work from Vernon Reid, and the eerie small-ensemble ballad "Dominata." This is a great record on its own, but hopefully it pulls some ears to the full Burnt Sugar oeuvre, which, in any event, is more about process than product. (Highly recommended are the group's most-song-oriented More than Post Human and their Morris collaboration The Rites.)

Given the expansive music, Tate-the-lyricist usually takes a backseat in his group. But his hip-hop surrealism is akin to what former Detroiter Ron Bodihdarma Allen and fellow poet Sarah Cruse do on their small-label release with L.A.-based Code Zero. Musically, this is unremarkable static jazz-meets-funk, but it adequately sets up the more-spoken-than-sung lyrics, which are the reason for listening. It makes you nostalgic for poet-playwright Allen's down-the-rabbit- hole extravaganzas at the old Zeitgeist — plays at the nexus of urban blues, Tibetan Buddhism and Dada. Detroit's loss was L.A.'s gain (whether L.A. knows it or not), and The Frequency of Nothing is a reminder of that fact. (Ron can be reached at [email protected].)