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Combustible Material

The final installment of Fast/Forward brings the conducted improvisations of an avant-garde big band.


However, "Richmond's most adventurous contemporary performance series," as it's billed by the museum, will end this year. The series has fallen to the axe of "serious" state budget cuts that called for changes at the museum "well beyond trimming and tightening," according to John Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art. Ravenal calls the disappearance of Fast/Forward a "hiatus": "We know we want a live performance series to be a part of the museum's future," he says.

This Saturday, for the last Fast/Forward concert Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber will perform what many people indeed call music. Burnt Sugar is a dozen-odd acoustic and electric musicians led by guitarist Greg Tate in "conducted improvisation." Inspired by Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" recordings, in which Davis experimented with electronic texturing and studio postproduction as a compositional tool, Burnt Sugar quotes from Hendrix, Monk, Chaka Khan as the group musically converses with the spirits of jazz and hip-hop.

Conducted improvisation — "conduction" as it was named by Butch Morris, who developed a system of leading large improvisatory groups — is a way of coordinating the efforts of many individuals, all generally playing without printed music.

As Burnt Sugar's leader, Tate may direct tempo and rhythm changes, play different sections of the orchestra against each other, or specify other musicians to join a soloist. "I give room for soloists to navigate their own courses, extemporize for long flights of fancy, or I can build something that's more melodic in intent," says Tate.

What is planned ahead varies with any given piece or performance. "We have set pieces, things that are arranged. … but what may change is interpretation and nuance," Tate explains. "At the other end are pieces that are developed onstage — or a combination of these methods. I may give the vocalist lyrics to a song, but the music may be completely original that night. Maybe a piece will take an intergalactic tour from the bass line."

This type of performance requires each band member to know the others' talents, personalities and dreams. Tate describes a recording session during the making of "Blood on the Leaf," their first CD: "Everyone was really listening and focused; everyone breathed in a collective way." After a four-hour session, they more or less had the album.

In live performance, Burnt Sugar can adjust its improvisation to jive with the audience, according to Tate. "There's a way in which the collective personality of the room influences the band," he says. "What I've always loved about big bands is the whole concept of bringing an audience into the total music experience. You can reference any genre that people are familiar with in the course of a set. You can give them a range of emotional experience."

For Tate, it's about love. "My impetus is primal. I say, 'Let's hear three great guitar players stretch out,'" he declares. "I always long to hear more, to develop some of their more extreme ideas over a longer period of time." Tate calls the music the band makes together "combustible material." Burnt Sugar's second album, a three-CD set titled "That Depends on What You Know," gives room for the musicians' passion to blaze. Confident, versatile work on the bass helps shape the emotion and the music into something like a narrative. Listening to Burnt Sugar, you can imagine a story emerging among characters represented by the different instruments, or you can slip into a groove and let the music bypass the explanatory brain.

The members of Burnt Sugar, says Tate, want to communicate "in that basic pop way, but everyone is a staunch radical on their instrument." Tate points out that Miles Davis and others who inspired Burnt Sugar were popular artists but also innovators and experimenters.

If the Virginia Museum has chosen to end a series that brought to town some of the biggest names in progressive performance because their state funding decreased, maybe it's time for more private donors to discover their innovative and experimental side. In the meantime, Richmonders can consider how we will continue to generously define "music." S

Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber will lead a free workshop to discuss and demonstrate their creative process and answer questions. Saturday, 1:00 p.m. Performance is Saturday, 8:00 p.m. $15-$18. 340-1405.

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