Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra, Colston Hall, Bristol
A dazzling tribute to the music and cosmology of bandleader Sun Ra is simply inspirational
Sunday 11 April 2010
At the end, when the 16 masked and robed musicians processed up the aisle and out of the hall, singing Sun Ra's catchy refrain of "Space is the place!", you realised that the whole dream-like performance was like being in some inspired, holy-rolling church, with saxophonists playing the preacher's role.
It was a long service, two and a half hours without a break. But despite seeing the show twice in 10 days, I'd go again tonight if the tour hadn't finished in Northampton on Friday.
"We're going to take you on a journey", Jerry Dammers had said, standing in his pulpit-like enclosure of keyboards, wearing an Egyptian helmet and the mask of a face on the back of his head. "It's a journey into outer space and to deep within ourselves." There was a bit of mumbling then, but he definitely said something later about life, death, rebirth and possession, introducing a version of the theme from The Exorcist by the trumpeter Dizzy Reece. He also described its composer, Mike Oldfield (the theme from The Exorcist is Tubular Bells, right?), as "someone else who had difficulties with fame", or words to that effect.
Jerry Dammers' difficulties with fame are well known, and if this show had too much material crammed into it, well, you could say he'd been preparing it for 30 years. Compared to the musical, intellectual and spiritual breadth of the evening – a free-jazz, reggae and exotica-tinged enquiry into man's place in the universe, with a sidebar on the transmigration of souls – the reunion of the old Specials (minus Jerry), topping up their pension pots by playing "Too Much Too Young" for the thousandth time is risible. It also sounds good fun, and of course they deserve a pension, but the Specials were always about far more than singalong ska, as anyone who stayed with the story as late as More Specials (only a year on from their debut) knows.
While the inspiration for this tour and the Spatial AKA itself was clearly the music and cosmology of the bandleader Sun Ra (Herman "Sonny" Blount from Birmingham, Alabama, 1914-93), the conception, as well as some of the tunes and all the arrangements, were Dammers' own, and easily traceable to that second album's fascination with cheesy organ-sounds. There's also a debt to his days as a DJ, surfing the craze for lounge music with a record collector's love of obscure grooves from old Italian soundtrack albums. The show's stunning visuals succeeded in putting Ra's Afro-Futurist visions into a clear context, with stills culled from sci-fi and architecture journals mixed with rare film of Ra and his troupe performing and posing by the pyramids.
Dammers' own contexts were less clearly expressed but the clues were there if you looked for them. He dedicated a wonderful version of a Sun Ra blues-ballad, "I'll Wait For You", sung by the superb Francine Luce, to his late father, adding ecclesiastical-sounding trills to a brief organ solo. It was a lovely, tender, even rather spooky moment and one freighted with meaning when you know that Jerry's dad was the Very Reverend Horace Dammers, Dean of Bristol Cathedral from 1973-87, and a canon in Coventry before that, his family's residence in that city perhaps the real genesis of the Specials and the 2-Tone label that Jerry and his pals went on to create. A disabled war hero, a member of CND, and a founder of the anti-consumerist Lifestyle Movement Horace, must, you feel, have cast a long shadow. And it's not hard to see a good, old-fashioned English-ecumenical impulse in Dammers' appropriation of Sun Ra, whose gnostic mythology can seem as endearingly eccentric as Stanley Spencer's visions of resurrection in a Cookham churchyard, lost souls searching for each other across the limitless vistas of black space.
What made the music really sing was Dammers' excellent casting for the band, picking the most soulful jazz saxophonists going in Jason Yarde, Denys Baptiste, Nathaniel Facey and Larry Stabbins, all of whom blew up a storm. By the end, as the band tooted their way out of the hall to continue the performance outside, you felt exhausted but also full of life and hope (partly the hope that Dammers won't wait 30 years before following it up). Arriving home afterwards on a cold clear night with stars dotting the sky, you just had to sing it one more time: "Space is the place!".
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