Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rite of Passage

Artist: Burnt Sugar
Album: Not April in Paris
Source: Bought new

One of the best parts of discovering a brand-new band--one that is not just brand-new to you, but has only just flashed into existence--is that you know right where to begin. They have just put out their first recording(s), are playing in just a handful of venues and generally haven't had an unmanageable amount of ink spilled on their behalf. You are, more or less, present at the creation.

Much, much more difficult is entering the (l)ongoing flow of an established musical entity. One of Eileen's aunts has started requesting a sort of "jazz primer" for birthday and Xmas gifts, and I don't blame her for outsourcing the job--jazz has a ton of history with a massive collective back-catalog, and it can be intimidating to know where to dip one's toes into the stream.

And so it was that I'd heard a lot about Burnt Sugar, but had no idea how to go about locating the best entry point. The group's discography was not exactly massive (maybe a dozen discs altogether?), but with no fixed lineup and a rat-tat-tat of local gigs that morphed in scope and sound from one to the next, the group offered no obvious place to start. Like, if you want to try out Miles Davis or Patti Smith, you get Kind of Blue or Horses, respectively; if you want a "representative" instance of Nick Cave or the Grateful Dead or Richard Thompson, where do you turn?

Put simply, some music is so imposing, in one way or another, that it can passively bully you out of giving it a try.

Burnt Sugar's semi-obvious front door was The Rites, a recording I'd read about that planted the hook. From the best I could tell, it was a suite-like "conducted improvisation" that adapted Stravinsky to a nelectro-jazz-funk mien and featured Pete Cosey, a guitarist I'd heard sizzling through Miles' Agharta album. It was nearly impossible, from that description, to intuit what the thing would actually sound like, but it seemed like it would fit just right between my particular set of ears.

The problem was, The Rites was way hard to track down. Nothing on eBay. Amazon perpetually out of stock. Other Music on backorder whenever I dropped by. The disc wasn't a priority so I didn't try that hard to get it, but it still never seemed ready to walk up and join The Beast.

But here's the deeply irrational part: since I'd fixed on The Rites as my rite of passage into Burnt Sugar, I was reluctant to try anything else, lest I get the wrong impression or something. I didn't go to gigs. I didn't buy other discs the couple of times they were in my path. I know it didn't make any kind of real sense to act this way, but this is how I work sometimes.

But like all good revelations, it came to me as soon as I stopped looking for it. One night I walked down to Barbes, the fantabulous little bar/club that was just a few blocks away from my place in Park Slope. I didn't know what was playing, exactly; it was so nearby and had such good things programmed pretty reliably, that sometimes I'd just go when I needed a music fix.

That night, Greg Tate--the erstwhile leader/conductor of Burnt Sugar--was there to proctor a conducted improv featuring more than a dozen string players, including violinist Jenny Scheinman and bass-master Greg Cohen. It was, of course, nothing like "typical" Burnt Sugar (which is usually heavy with percussion, electric guitars and scattish vocals) but utterly transporting. Barbes' small back room floated a few feet off the ground for an hour or so, and it was clear that Tate was working a kind of magic that all of the musicians recognized as his particular brand of sorcery. It was not a Burnt Sugar show, but I had definitely heard Burnt Sugar in there.

Within a week I was at Other Music and picked up Not April in Paris, a self-released CD-R of a 2004 live gig in France that featured over a dozen Sugar folk on horns, drums, flutes, keys, vox and every other kind of music-maker. As I imagined, it defied categorization (or even, really, description), was nothing like the Barbes show...and also wasn't quite as fantastic. Maybe you had to be there as it unfolded?

Nevermind. Not April in Paris is still a singular bit of music in my collection that, most importantly, held the door open for more. I finally found The Rites on eMusic, and went with Debbie to a free outdoor Burnt Sugar gig at Lincoln Center (which, again, was entirely unlike all of the other Burnt offerings I'd managed to consume, being surprisingly hip-hop focused). I may not get any more, or might dip into another part of Tate's discography if it pops up in my path. But the important part is I'm in when it comes to Burnt Sugar, and once that kind of door is opened, you can walk through any number of other ones.

SISOSIG? It's certainly not easy listening, but Not April in Paris still stands as the only Burnt Sugar hard copy I've got, and as such stays. With its dense layering of sounds and fluid foundation, the disc is also something that's likely to expand with more listening over a longer period of time. It's hard to picture listening to this more than once a year or so, but equally hard to imagine that those annual spins won't be pretty rewarding.

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