Friday at Levitt: Jazz collective Burnt Sugar Arkestra embarks on new chapter



For the members of Burnt Sugar Arkestra, moving on without its late co-founder/leader Greg Tate, a Dayton native, hasn’t been without its difficulties. However, if there was any outfit prepared to soldier forward after such a devastating loss, it’s the New York-based avant-garde jazz collective performing at Levitt Pavilion in downtown Dayton on Friday, Sept. 9.

“Greg positioned us to be able to carry on,” bassist and co-founder Jared Michael Nickerson said. “Greg left us with over 20 years of material. Plus, he created a musical ensemble that has all the elements that lead to longevity and prosperity. He was the beacon to gather a crew that’s so creative and pretty much in their prime at this moment. This band can go on as long as these folks are interested in doing this.”

There’s also a more practical reason Burnt Sugar can continue working following the death of Tate, a respected writer and musician who died last December.

“To be truthful, the band was always split into two entities, church and state,” Nickerson said. “Greg was church and came up with a lot of the verbiage around the band. All the song titles, a lot of the lyrics and, actually, a lot of the tunes and a lot of the tune motifs were by Greg. I’ve always handled all of the business and I’m still here so the business hasn’t changed.”



Harnessing new energy

Burnt Sugar, which formed in New York City in 1999, has released more than a dozen studio or live projects that mix jazz, R&B, hip-hop, rock, EDM and other styles. It’s discography includes “Blood on the Leaf Opus No. 1″ (1999), “More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion” (2006), “Making Love to the Dark Ages” (2009), “All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity” (2017) and “Angels Over Oakanda” (2021).

While Tate and Nickerson both have Dayton ties, it has been a decade since Burnt Sugar was last in town. The ensemble performed alongside acts like John Legend, Train, the Ohio Players and Guided By Voices at the Downtown Dayton Revival Festival in 2012.

“The date is pretty close to the 10th anniversary of our last appearance, just by chance,” Nickerson said. “I will say the band is in a different place as far as the leaders and the breadth of conduction that is now available through the membership. Shelley Nicole and Bruce Mack are two of our main conductors now and they’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”



Burnt Sugar’s live approach is based on Butch Morris’ conduction system of orchestrated improvisation. On stage, the musicians work off cues from Mack and Nicole, a vocalist, musician, songwriter, yoga instructor and Reiki master. The two will share lead vocal and conducting duties.

“Greg is still with us, he’s just in a different energy space,” Nicole said. “When he was on this side with us, he always gave us opportunities to conduct. We always felt like there was space to do that. Teaching is really how you carry on and leave a legacy. Greg was the type of person who taught, and he taught us how to conduct when he was here. He understood he wasn’t the only person who could do this thing. He shared and trusted the people he gathered to be part of his tribe.”



Empowerment and growth

The Levitt show is part of a busy year for Burnt Sugar, which began with a pair of performances in Los Angeles in early March. The group had its Carnegie Hall debut in April as part of the Afrofuturism Festival. In July, Burnt Sugar performed at the Concert of Colors in Detroit and a Greg Tate Memorial in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center in New York.

“It’s been very interesting to observe and feel the energy that Greg was managing from a creative standpoint,” Mack said. “You start to feel a lot of his search and how he observed people and what he saw in the band. To say this band is a well of talent is an understatement in itself but I feel it more when I am standing in front to conduct and trying to live up to what Greg was doing.

“It’s daunting because there’s so much talent and so much energy to try to manage and mold into something you’re feeling at the moment,” Mack continued. “It’s been very informative. It’s been very uplifting. Doing this and working with everybody and trying to uplift Greg and his spirit has been very empowering.”

Mack, a longtime Burnt Sugar member, recently released a new solo single, “Throw My Hands Up.” He sings and plays keyboards on the gospel-tinged funk number concerning police shootings of dark-skinned Americans.

“The band is very present,” Mack said. “Everybody brings this energy that’s really special. There is a lot there that can go on for a period of time. I’m finding myself trying to open up more creatively with the group and find my own place with the group. There’s a lot still I can open up with and grow with and learn from the band. There’s so much creative energy and it’s extremely powerful.”



Building a future

Nickerson says the focus is to use that energy and power to chart a new path forward.

“We’re really finding our groove,” he said. “We have a crew of people together now that have known each other for a number of years. We’ve worked together and loved each other, which is the most important thing. It’s not always harmonious with bands, especially after a number of years, and if there has been success, but that’s not a problem with Burnt Sugar. Everybody is pretty much an independent contractor so there’s no pressure on them.”

For Burnt Sugar, this is still the beginning of an all new chapter. The members of this experimental music collective are driven to carry on, making music in the moment and building on the legacy of Burnt Sugar’s late founder.

“This has been a beautiful experience,” Nicole said. “It’s been challenging, emotionally, but that’s just what it is. It will get better over time. I’m just thankful to be here and to be able to stand with my crew, my family, and to continue to have this band go on.”

Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or e-mail at


Who: Burnt Sugar Arkestra

Where: Levitt Pavilion, 134 S. Main St., Dayton

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9

Cost: Free

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