02/04/02

Burnt Sugar Live in Washington DC

The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage seemed like the most unlikely place you'll hear Burnt Sugar, an aggressive, electric Miles-inspired 13-piece ensemble led by journalist Greg Tate. But lo and behold, there Sugar was in all its theatrical glory in front of an attentive, enthusiastic sea of listeners that ranged from hipsters to Kennedy Center regulars who are so committed to the free-concert Millennium Stage that they will almost check out any performance regardless if they know anything about it.

One would think that the plush elongated hallway of space that makes up the Millennium Stage would work to Burnt Sugar's sonic disadvantage. After all, this is a place originally designed for more acoustic-based, less-rambunctious combos, not ones comprised of twin powerhouse drummers along with high-octane guitars, bass, electric keyboards, dulcimer and other instruments. And given that the band's two main influences are Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Lawrence Butch Morris' "conduction" concept, the whole idea of Burnt Sugar at the Kennedy Center just seemed disastrous.

Fortunately, I was wrong. Under the direction of guitarist, bandleader and JazzTimes contributor Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar aptly summoned the spirits of chaos and order to sublime effect, unleashing a ferocious performance that left many listeners speechless and others cheering for more. Lucky for the band, Tate's understanding and love for Miles is so deep that Burnt Sugar avoided the pitfall of sounding like a repertoire band. And no matter how spacious the hypnotic grooves dissipated or abstract the orchestral colors grew, the music's cohesiveness never fell apart like some of Morris' less successful "comprovisation" projects.

Opting mostly for open-ended vamps built on sparse bass riffs, the band sounded as if they were slowly ascending out of one of the deepest, murkiest swamps. On "Stomp on Holy Ground," acoustic bassist Jason Di Matteo and electric bassist Jared Nickerson crafted a prowling dark groove while Tate and fellow guitarist Rene Akhan and Morgan Michael Craft aided in the spooky-electric vibe by delivering wailing counterpoint solos that relied as much on cathartic emotions as they did on gizmo sonic manipulations and virtuoso fingers. The sonic clouds grew thicker as Lewis "Flip" Barnes splintered edgy notes through a reverb-treated trumpet. Satch Hoyt's stinging flute managed to pierce through the opaque textures, as did Lisala Beatty's soulful soprano and Justice X's animated cries. Once the séancelike song reached the surface and took flight, the group went into the grungy reggae stomp, "04.29.92," which featured Justice X's pleading vocals.

Burnt Sugar became more persuasive when the gloomy pace gave way to more uptempo songs like the incredible reconstruction of Rufus & Chaka Khan's "At Midnight," featuring Beatty's gutbucket singing.

The band's performance of Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Are Made of Sand" was the climax of the evening, featuring Beatty's impassioned crooning and Akhan's guitar wizardry. An inventive take on Method Man's "Bring the Pain" proved equally riveting as the band shifted from funk to speed metal to jazz, all on the turn of a dime. And although the band's sonic assault inspired a handful of audience members to leave, it was quite inspiring to see many parents with their awestruck children sitting on the floor, right up front of the stage, just taking it all in.

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