Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

Advertisements

June 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: Making Love to the Dark Ages

Believe it or not, this is the tenth album by sprawling avant-jazz megaplex Burnt Sugar. Conceived in 1999 by former Village Voice critic and author Greg Tate as a continuation of what Miles Davis was doing circa Bitches Brew – although they’re a lot closer to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or some of Sun Ra’s deeper-space explorations – Burnt Sugar quickly earned a following both for their epic, atmospheric live performances, and because there were so many people in the band. The full contingent numbers over fifty, including bass star Jared Nickerson (a Tammy Faye Starlite alum), noted jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and baritone sax goddess Paula Henderson of Moisturizer (who also leads a miniature version of the band playfully called Moist Sugar). While the Arkestra Chamber is also a smaller version of the group, the soundscapes on this album are no less vast for the contributions of a couple dozen fewer players. Because of the band’s deliberately improvisatory nature, don’t expect to be able to hear any of the songs on the cd in concert: this is simply the group on a good night when everybody was feeling what they were. Which was good, and always seems to be the case – this cd is nothing if not fun.

With so many people in the band, how do they hold it together? Typically, by throwing chord changes out the window. In place of traditional Western melodic tropes, the band substitutes innumerable dynamic shifts, subtle variations in tempo, parts rising and slowly sinking out of a massive wash of sound. The effect is supremely psychedelic, even trance-inducing. Most of the tracks segue into each other: to go so far as giving them each a name is a bit of a stretch. The opening cut Chains and Water is a long, three-part suite, a typical one-chord jam spiced early on with sax and blues harp solos and an infrequent vocal. The production goes dubwise at the end, whistles and other various disembodied textures floating through the mix, horn charts rising and falling. Part two gets all chaotic, swirling around a repetitive syncopated single-note riff by the massive horn section, finally brought out of the morass on the wings of a nasty, darkly bluesy guitar solo and finally, the hint of a hook, a four-note descending bassline.

Thorazine/Eighty One fades up, anything but a downer layered over a dark, circular bass motif, eventually slowing way down to a long coda, then building skeletal from there with screechy sax and everybody nonchalantly floundering around. Love to Tical is a boisterous funk jam, predictably crescendoing to a searing, spacy guitar solo, then to soprano sax, a chorus of women chanting “feel, feel, feel” distant in the background. From there they segue into Dominata, which gets considerably quieter, layers of cloudy horns over tinkly piano with a bass blip or two.

But just when you think that’s all there is to this group, they hit you upside the head with the fiery title track in all its searing, violin-driven, Middle Eastern-inflected majesty. Like the rest of the tracks here, it’s an epic and it’s worth your investment as the suite morphs into raw, noir trip-hop menace and then into buoyant loungey atmospherics. A smartly chosen number to end a good late-night headphone album on a high note.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment