Electric Dreams

New York's Burnt Sugar create an aural melting pot.

Greg Tate, a veteran New York journalist and critic who’s also been playing guitar in bands for a decade and a half, began the giant, malleable funk-rock-electronic-samba-soul-jazz-fusion-whatever ensemble Burnt Sugar at the beginning of the decade to channel the dense sprawl of Miles Davis’ early electric sides, specifically Bitches Brew, along with the likes of Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Parliament-Funkadelic, A.R. Kane, and the upper crest of the outer spheres. Their fourth album, Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets (Trugroid)—no comma, no apostrophe, a maneuver typical of Tate’s writing and hence perfect for a project that invites you to dive in and find your own damn way around—sounds like many of those things, usually all at once.

As with 2001’s Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1 and 2002’s triple-CD That Depends on What You Know, Burnt Sugar’s compositions frequently come via “conduction”—”a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or improvisation,” according to the system’s founder, Butch Morris (who appeared on last year’s The Rites: Conductions Inspired by Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” along with Miles guitarist Pete Cosey and bassist Melvin Gibbs). It’s a good method for a group whose membership fluctuates with each show, though the core group is about a dozen strong. And like those discs, Black Sex Yall is hit-or-miss, which you’d expect from a double CD that wears its indulgence on its sleeve. Usually the misses come from the singing, which tends to be either stentorian (Tamar Kali’s upright vocals on the Vernon Reid–arranged “Driva Man/ Freedom Day” contrast uneasily with the wigged-out drum and bass breakdown and trumpeter Lewis Flip Barnes’ and alto saxophonist Micah Gaugh’s pile- driving charts) or gonzo-expressionist (Justice Dilla-X imitating Bad Brains vocalist H.R. on “Fear”).

But there’s so much else going on musically that it’s easy to overlook a few misses. “Funky Rich Medina,” the gorgeous opener, leads Mazz Swift’s Middle Eastern violin and Satch Hoyt’s flute through an opiated groove that gradually takes on squalling overtones from Egyptian DJ Mutamassik’s scratches. (Even Dilla-X and Lisala Beatty’s scatting work here.) The seven-part “No Direction Home” moves through Ellingtonian stateliness, diffracted hard bop, and laptop-glitch lullaby without blinking. And the haunting “Ventris” recalls both Brian Eno and Ornette Coleman, while not really sounding like either.


Burnt Sugar play Lo-Fi Performance Gallery, 429-B Eastlake Ave. E., 206-254-2824, at 10 p.m. Fri., Sept. 17. $10.

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