Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A Orchestra, Barbican, London
If, as Einstein maintained, the universe is constantly expanding, then Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A Orchestra may be the ideal vehicle in which to explore its outer limits, this being a characteristic it emulates, with the addition of a string section now expanding its ranks to some 24 musicians.
A quartet of vocalists adds several further dimensions to the sound, including hippie stalwart Edgar Broughton doing a creditable Beefheart impression on the Captain's “Frownland”, and reggae legend Johnny Clarke lending a little roots righteousness to the proceedings.
Decked out in the sparkly robes and extravagant headgear beloved of Sun Ra's Arkestra, the musicians enter in processional manner, honking and percussing their way gaily through the auditorium onto a stage decorated with Ra-style Egyptian-themed mannequins, sarcophagi and the like. With poet Anthony Joseph taking the mic, the groove resolves into “In the Bleak Midwinter”, an early indicator of the diversity of the night's set. Saxophonists Jason Yarde, Larry Stabbins and Denys Baptiste, vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais and bass clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings all get early opportunities to solo in the first few numbers, with an early highlight being a surging dubwise version of Ellington's “Blue Pepper”.
From there, the evening takes flight into a succession of driving ensemble pieces studded by brilliant solo jaunts, pianist Alcyona Mick notably dextrous on a whirlwind run through Andrew Hill's “Illusions”. The orchestra's Ra-homage origins are retained in versions of “I'll Wait for You” and a tremendous “Soul Vibrations” showcasing drummer Patrick Illingworth, while Ra's influence on Dammers' own heritage is reflected with a “Ghost Town” cosmologically expanded into “Ghost Planet”. Elsewhere, the Orchestra's remit takes in outer-space lounge music, majestic dub skanks, and European library-music unearthings such as “Les Ours Savants”, featuring a section in which, starting with soprano sax, then clarinet, the entire horn section rises one by one to add their own soloing voice to a glorious cacophony that fully exemplifies Sun Ra's ideal of a “joyful noise”.
The show closes as it began, the musicians strolling back through the audience as a small combo of strings and reeds remains onstage supporting trombonist Harry Brown on the tender closer “Going Home”. But it doesn't end there, the crowd exiting only to recongregate around the band in the bar area, jamming on Sun Ra's theme tune “Space Is the Place”. Truly, the gig that keeps on giving.
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