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Jerry Dammers

Straight No Chaser


"The music is different here, the vibrations are different... not like planet earth. Planet earth sound of guns, anger, frustration... there is no one to talk to on planet earth to understand... it would affect their vibrations, for the better of course... equation wise, the first thing to do is consider internal linktime as officially ended... we'll work on the other side of time... we'll bring them here through either isotope, internal linkteleportation, transmolecularzation... or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music..." – Sun Ra, Space is the Place

Seated in suspense at the Barbican in front of Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA – a shimmering 14-strong collective of astral travellers – time has officially stood still. In truth, it’s a mystery. February’s cares and worries have dissipated. I’ve left this troubled planet. My half-full plastic cup of Corona has transformed into an intoxicating potion. Can Sun Ra’s eternal vibrations be that strong?

‘Cosmic Engineering’ is the second appearance in London for the Specials co-founder and Two-Tone label boss’s arkestra tribute band, following Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown Festival two years ago. On that occasion, punters we’re fascinated and flummoxed in equal measure by the Spatial AKA’s galaxy of sound: swing band jazz, exotica, mischievous ska, hypnotic post-apocalyptic chants, improvisation and deep funk.

And tonight was no different. It’s a privilege to be in a hall that resonates with inspiring music played fearlessly and impeccably by the cream of British musicians. A space of beautiful noise. A spectacle. Remember those?
To my left, a suspended spaceship fashioned from an old motorcycle sidecar. To my right, various alien heads and complicit mannequins. Watching from afar, a back line of sarchofagi. At the front, a unit of cloaked and face-masked horn players, including Jason Yarde, Working Week’s tenor freak Larry Stabbins, Nathaniel Farcy and Denys Baptiste. Tuning in – or maybe zoning out – are Galliano’s Spry on percussion and Mercury-nominated pianist Zoe Rahman (a dainty and versatile foil for the car horn / phaser textures of Dammers), among others.

Names and appearances aside, Dammers’ arrangements of legendary compositions were superb – spiritual yet dynamic and coherent. His writing prowess and wisdom is well known but few people realise the extent of his musical travels: hip hop and jazz jams at the Wag Club; the spiritual jazz sessions at The Atlantic in Brixton; a Jazz Odyssey band appearance at Glastonbury, Russian astronaut score at the Roundhouse and so forth. From day one, Dammers has traded on instinct and ambition.

Tonight, his subtle melding of brass with rhythm, pyrotechnic textures and sci-fi FX was a marvel to behold. The lilting rendition of Sun Ra’s ‘I’ll Wait For You’ was probably the emotional apex of the evening – Francine Luce excelling with her unique blend of melancholic majesty and dread. She’d later flipped the script when impersonating jungle creatures for a cover of Martin Denny’s ‘Jungle Madness’. All in a night’s work in the AKA.

Other Sun Ra selections of note – and make no mistake, Ra is Dammers’ cosmological mentor – included ‘Nuclear War’ (reconstructed to form ‘ghost Planet’ – a fusion of poet Anthony Joseph’s prophecies with the audience’s gargled ‘Ghost Town’ melodica hook), ‘Where Pathways Meet’ and, of course, ‘Space is the Place’, which instigated an unison of chorus whistles from the hall to the men’s toilets while the band procession played on in the foyer – the House of Ra for one night. ‘True Retrospect’ and ‘Discipline’ collided – the results both disorientating and disarming. I fear I submitted myself completely at that point. Was that where the drum n’bass rhythms came in? Maybe, maybe not.

Sun Ra wasn’t the only musical maverick honoured tonight. Alice Coltrane, flickered in and out of view on the molten screen to the sound of ‘Journey To Satchidananda’ and ‘Om Nama Sivay/ Battle At Armageddon’. And Saleb Rageb’s ‘Egypt Strut’ offered one of the heaviest grooves of the night, drummer Patrick Illingworth and the bass axis of electric Ollie Bayley and upright Neil Charles excelling in particular.

Another avant-garde composer with a penchant for costumes, Moondog, fluttered into the set list with the horn-heavy ‘Bird’s Lament’, Ra devotee Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks’ ‘Satya’ sounded irie and Clement ‘Coxone’ Dodd’s spirit shook the walls with ‘Ringo Rock’. A bizarre edition to the established AKA set list was French library tune, ‘Bacchanal Chez Satan’, which showed off the intricate touch of this huge orchestra, both singularly and as a collective being – just in case we’d been overwhelmed by fierce blowing and bashing.

Upon reflection, a retro-futuristic event like this assumes greater significance, beyond your average out-there experience. As Dammers explained to Chaser’s Paul Bradshaw recently, it’s a call to arms; a call to dream.

To arrive, not to escape.

“The theme of this concert is vaguely of being in peril, of a human race heading towards self destruction. I’m trying to remember the time when there was a vision of the future because now it’s like retro-future. We need to dream of a better world.”

Ra would concur. (Amar Patel)