Even veteran sonic explorers sometimes need a map. In 1996 Kevin Martin of electronic duo Techno Animal put together Jazz Satellites, Vol. One: Electrification. A revelatory double CD that explored the sonic routes opened up by Miles Davis's electric period, the set featured two dozen jazz, postpunk, and electronica artists. Not long thereafter, Virgin UK shut down its Ambient sub-label, which had issued the compilation--before Martin could complete a planned triple-CD sequel to Satellites' wall-to-wall squall.
Uneven but brimming with ideas, the second album by New York astro-jazz-funk-rock ensemble Burnt Sugar, That Depends on What You Know, sounds in some ways like an imagined version of Martin's never-released set. (That goes for its absurdly hubristic length, too: The release weighs in at close to 200 minutes.) On last year's Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1, the band, led by Village Voice music critic Greg Tate, carved a swamped-out groove decorated with lotus-blossom guitars. This latest effort is even more wide-ranging, encapsulating everything from Latin-tinged dub-house to covers of Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, and a medley of Rufus and Thelonious Monk.
Tate and Co. are aiming for the rafters, and at times they reach them. "The Sirens Return"--featuring Living Colour axman Vernon Reid wah-riffing under Rene Akhan's firewall leads--and the engrossing five-part "Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite" are two examples of their successes. Even "Two Bass Blipsch" and "Screamin' Arthur Jafa," which sound random at first, eventually reveal an appealing ebb-flow dynamic. Like parts of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew--which Tate has cited as the key inspiration behind the group's formation--tracks such as these contain few landmarks, but no real potholes, either.
Not that Burnt Sugar is quite up to comparisons to Davis yet. As you might expect from its length, That Depends is rife with misfires: Mugabe's incompetent a cappella freestyle on "Keep It Real 'til It Flatlines," or the sub-Diamanda Galas/Yoko Ono-isms of "No Poema Concrete Blues." But any group that can essay both carnivalesque club jams ("Lunching With Mister Akhan," "The Fenix") and a searching 22-minute version of Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" is certainly doing something right, if a little longwindedly.
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