Eight of Burnt Sugar’s standing army of 40 musicians made it out to Orange County from NYC for the Black Urban Music Conference that UCI held on Friday, Feb. 27 and Saturday, Feb. 28. Among the stylish array of fedoras, sunglasses, scarves and popped collars, the jazz improvisation band Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Orchestra performed in the Winifred Smith Hall for an audience of around 50 people on Saturday night.
“We’re really glad to be out of the freezer that is New York. This is fantastic,” said the lead female vocalist while the band was still warming up their instruments.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Orchestra is an eclectic mix of all kinds of individuals, instruments and talents, describing themselves as “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spatial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic” on their website. In 1999, Greg Tate and Jared Michael Nickerson founded the group to allow for a huge array of artists to do experimental jazz, hip-hop, soul and anything in between.
The two founding members were present at Saturday night’s show — Tate on the guitar and conducting and Nickerson on the bass guitar. Tate is a prolific writer in subjects such as jazz, culture, politics or, his specialty, all three at once. He spoke at the conference as the keynote speaker on the overarching topic of “People’s Matrix vs. Mainstream Regimes,” exploring the artist’s role in people’s perceptions and the other influences on mainstream culture.
The show began thirty minutes late from the stated 8:00 p.m. start time, but it was evidently not unusual or off-putting. In a way indicative of the casual and relaxed nature of their group, the members came from their seats in the crowd or walked through the front doors of the theater and onto the stage.
“It’s like this New York vibe, waiting for the show to start,” said Nicole Mitchell, director of the conference, as the audience amassed.
Once they began, the audience couldn’t stop bobbing their heads. Each of their songs induced tapping and swaying to the rhythm and provocative, catchy lyrics. While they did have a setlist of songs written by Tate, they thrive with improvisation. Each musician received solo time to play with the music and turn it into something unique — each version of the song was different each time it was played by the different musicians.
While there were minor technical problems turning the microphones on, Burnt Sugar’s sound was still the loud and overwhelming wave that jazz is supposed to envelop you in. There were times of grand solos, each one escalating to that peak of fast but precise fury — on the drums, on the electric guitar — and the following thunderous applause. There were times when Tate as the conductor egged them into battles, especially between the saxophone and the trumpet, back and forth in fervor.
Guests from the audience and friends of the band came on stage throughout to perform with them. Among them was the event’s coordinator, Mitchell, who is a professor at UCI and a renowned flutist and composer. Everyone on the stage was able to blend their sounds into a symphonic arrangement, in the competing jazz tempo kind of way.
Louis Armstrong once said, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” And that seems to be the nature of Burnt Sugar’s freestyling, loose-limbed, undefinable, but greatly enjoyable vibe.