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JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 2:34 pm
by Garth Cartwright
Jerry Dammers is one of the great mysteries of British popular music. He seemed to arrive fully formed on the scene in 1979 as leader of The Specials and across the next three years went on to oversee some of the most brilliant and socially engaged popular music these isles have ever seen. After The Specials disintegrated in 1981 Dammers returned with in 1984 with The Special AKA and succeeded in making the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela into a protest pop icon before disappearing from making music. He didn’t become a hermit ala Syd Barrett or Peter Green - he regularly DJs across South London - but he has stopped making new music.

Almost a decade ago Dammers formed the Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra as a Sun Ra tribute band. If there was some excitement at Dammers’ return many fans felt rather confused by his devotion to leading a large – up to 25 members – orchestra who focus on playing jazz compositions that veer from easy listening to free jazz work outs by Sun Ra, a wacky, sci-fi and Egyptology obsessed band leader who achieved cult status during his lifetime and, since his death, has become a very hip name to drop. Then the original line-up of The Specials finally reformed as a lucrative touring outfit. It seems that Dammers did consider joining them but old tensions surfaced and his insistence on The Specials performing new material grated with the other members who simply wanted to tour the songs that made The Specials famous.

The revived Specials have certainly found touring lucrative, something Dammers cannot claim – interviewed by Robert Elms on BBC London the afternoon of the Barbican’s show he mentioned how expensive it was to put on concerts due to all the musicians involved. Indeed, I last saw the Spatial Orchestra in 2011 and am not sure they have performed often since. Understandable when you consider tonight’s performance found Dammers “conducting” 26 musicians, 2 vocalists and four guest artists.

Things kicked off with a small combo playing Dracula and I’m surprised to see Neville Staples leading on vocals. Yet Staples, wearing long dreads and a dapper bowler hat and walking with a cane, has left the reformed Specials so is obviously on good terms with Dammers again. Then the rest of the musicians enter by walking down the Barbican’s stairs and onto the stage whilst playing. They immediately launch into Sun Ra’s Spontaneous Simplicity – Dammers has announced that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of Sun Ra’s birth so this concert is a celebration of his centenary – with London Trinidadian spoken word man Anthony Joseph reading one of Ra’s poems.

The Orchestra’s sound is very full – as you might expect with eight brass, flute, grand piano, vibes, two drummers, two percussionists, two guitarists, double and electric bass and three string players – and when Francine Luce steps up to sing vocals on Frankenstein things begin to soar with excellent trombone and trumpet solos. Ms Luce has a strong vocal and presence and I’d be interested in hearing her again. Dammers mentions tonight is also a celebration of how New Orleans music got transformed by Jamaicans into ska and reggae and the orchestra rip through the old R&B tune Heavy Sugar. Tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste stands to take his first solo and the audience cheers. Anthony Joseph – who I once worked with in Rat Records in Camberwell – is back to perform Time off his new album. There’s a lovely rendition of the old ska number Machine Shop and then Cornell Campbell is on stage to perform Love Is A Treasure, a song he recorded, he notes, in 1956. Campbell’s voice is superbly sweet and supple and the album he cut last year with London band The Soothsayers (several of whom are in the Spatial Orchestra) is a reggae gem worth checking.

Intermission then it’s Neville Staples performing Black Panther, an obscure British rocksteady tune. Cornell is next on and he has such presence, such a superb voice, that the Spatial Orchestra’s sound rises beautifully behind him. Then it’s Discipline 27 – is this Sun Ra? – a beautifully felt, melodic composition. But the evening is starting to slip away somewhat, Dammers having to call for guests who often are not aware it’s their time to take the stage and the Sun Ra numbers beginning to get samey. Rico Rodriquez, the veteran Jamaican trombonist is helped on stage. Yet he doesn’t really play any trombone, instead choosing to take the mic’ and sing a dazed version of Oh Carolina that goes nowhere. Much as I can admire Dammers’ loyalty to his old comrade Rico had nothing to offer the Spatial Orchestra and the audience is getting restless, people leaving as it’s now three hours since proceedings started. Both Free Nelson Mandela and and Ghost Town are reinvented – the latter with Anthony Joseph improvising – but neither version improves on the original. Cornell Campbell (flanked by two male harmony vocalists) returns and rescues things with We’re Going Wrong. Then more Ra and things trundle on until the epic final of Space Is The Place where the Spatial Orchestra is joined on stage by a teenage marching band (once lead by their late member Matt Fox). It’s a big blowout in every sense but it goes on too long – which is true for much of the second half. Dammers had seemingly realized this at one late point where he thanked us for staying and apologized for going on so late “I didn’t play music for twenty five years and I don’t get to do this often”. He also dedicated the night to the Palestinean people and called on an end to their suffering – a noble gesture from the man who wrote War Crimes when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Some of the music played tonight was amongst the finest I’d heard all year. Yet a concert that starts at 7.30 and finishes at 11.30 (with a twenty minute intermission) is, inevitably, overlong and in this case often unfocused. Dammers didn’t sound very happy with the state of things during his radio interview; thus maybe it’s time for him to disband the Spatial Orchestra – Sun Ra’s surviving Arkestra are regular visitors to the UK these days – and work with a smaller combo. And create some new music. Tonight’s Spatial Orchestra performance was often brilliant but it also felt like a swansong. Jerry Dammers is 59 and now needs new challenges. Go, Jerry, go!

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 3:26 pm
by NormanD
Thanks Garth, that's a very good review.

Four hours on a night like last night, followed by the long shlepp home, requires dedication as well as musical love. Sometimes, I wonder whether the idea of Sun Ra is more entrancing than some of the music he brought into being.

And when did you work at Rat Records?

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 8:59 pm
by Adam Blake
Nice review, Garth. I was gigging with Errol this afternoon and he said he saw you there and what a great evening he and his wife had.

Two small points: Peter Green and Syd Barrett both suffered from debilitating mental illness. Not quite the same as becoming hermits.

Sun Ra was actually a hip name to drop before he died. It's not about fashion so much as music.

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 12:36 am
by Garth Cartwright
Adam, if you don't mind let's continue the debate: Jerry took 25 years off making music after 6 years of huge (and ganja fuelled) success. Are you sure there were no mental health issues involved? Green returned to performing in the 90s, sad as it was.

Sun Ra: he was hip while alive, sure. I owned some of his stuff in the 1980s, the MC5 - very much Detroit hipsters - played with him and covered him and Lester Bangs in his brilliant demolition of Miles Davis writes off Sun Ra in an extremely un-PC way largely becuz he was playing to white rock fans who, according to Lester, had no knowledge or feeling for jazz. You know this essay so no need for me to detail it. But Ra, since his death, has become a name to drop amongst hipsters on a much greater level - I regularly encounter people who have no interest in jazz but go on about the Arkestra, largely in the "I went to Cafe Oto to see the Arkestra" as a badge of coolness (which may well have been what Lester was railing against). Ra's odd life and sic-fi/Egyptology have made him more famous than his music (which I quite like but he's no Duke Ellington. Or Miles for that matter). I've seen the Arkestra a bunch of times in London and while I enjoy them - and their Barbican 2012 gig was epic psychedelic fun - I don't feel he was much more than a George Clinton figure of his day. Tho George was a lot funkier. And perhaps, as he still tours, still is (I should add I've paid to see George twice and it has been memorable. But not in a positive sense).

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 12:53 am
by Adam Blake
Garth Cartwright wrote: I regularly encounter people who have no interest in jazz but go on about the Arkestra, largely in the "I went to Cafe Oto to see the Arkestra" as a badge of coolness (which may well have been what Lester was railing against). Ra's odd life and sic-fi/Egyptology have made him more famous than his music (which I quite like but he's no Duke Ellington. Or Miles for that matter). I've seen the Arkestra a bunch of times in London and while I enjoy them - and their Barbican 2012 gig was epic psychedelic fun - I don't feel he was much more than a George Clinton figure of his day. Tho George was a lot funkier. And perhaps, as he still tours, still is (I should add I've paid to see George twice and it has been memorable. But not in a positive sense).


That's EXACTLY what Lester was railing against, but Lester had his own agenda, as all his fans know, and you either enjoy him or dismiss him for it. And it was not so much a demolition of Miles as an attempt to understand what the hell was going on in things like "Big Fun" and "Live/Evil" and "On The Corner". But you can't dismiss Sun Ra like that, though. He was a prodigy, doing arrangements for Fletcher Henderson at a young age and demonstrating a profound understanding of orchestration that someone like Clinton could never approach. Ironically, his insistence that he was from Saturn, his wild outfits and bizarre inconsistencies meant that he was not taken seriously by the general jazz audience that really should have listened a bit harder, whilst being embraced by acid heads who saw him as a divine eccentric. Both camps were wrong. Ra was about discipline, while Clinton was and is about excess. Despite their superficial similarities, they are actually polar opposites. And one should never condemn an artist for the follies of their audience!

(Also, point taken about Dammers possibly suffering from mental illness too. I dunno...)

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 9:25 am
by Garth Cartwright
The Lester essay is brilliant, up there with his Astral Weeks essay. you are right that it's not a demolition of Miles, more a rage about how his talent seemed to shrivel in the 70s. As for the jazz audience not taking Ra seriously while the acid freaks embraced him - I think Ra got the audience he deserved. He may have demonstrated talent as an arranger early on but I've never considered him as in any way a major post-WW2 talent. If it wasn't for the costumes and weirdness I don't think he would be celebrated in anywhere near the way he is today - the Mingus Big Band don't get anywhere near the kind of UK attention that Ra does but Mingus was a far greater talent than Ra. But Mingus BB doesn't dress in silly costumes and chant "space is the place" and other such goofball stuff.

Clinton is more of a leader than a musician but he's put his name to a helluva lot more memorable recordings than Ra ever did. From I Just Wanna Testify to Atomic Dog - dude knew how to cut the funk. That's he's spent recent decades trading on his psychedelic rep' to audiences who want to experience that crazy ole psychedelic jamm is what reminds me of Ra's enduring popularity.

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 10:59 am
by Adam Blake
Miles's problems were quite simple: chronic bursitis, cocaine addiction and a horror that he wasn't as hip as Jimi or Sly. But Lester had other fish to fry in that essay (bless him).

Have to agree to differ with you on Sun Ra. The show I saw in 1982 was one of the best I have ever seen - and I, unlike your despised hipsters, have attended quite a few jazz gigs in my time. It was a spiritual experience - and a diminished version of that spirituality is still very much present in the Arkestra's current performances. Less so The Mingus big band who I saw in 1997. But I love Mingus and Sun Ra without wishing to measure their respective talents. Mingus was angry. Ra was cosmic. You respond far more to one than the other. Fair enough. Ra's records (and God knows there are hundreds of them) are a pale reflection of the live experience. As for Ellington, he was jazz's supreme genius, in many ways, but a lot of his work can be rather more polish than inspiration. Not entirely unlike Mozart!

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 11:32 am
by Garth Cartwright
Excellent post, Adam! I never saw Ra just the Arkestra various times over the decades. I've only listened to a tiny amount of Ra's recordings - the obvious reissues - and while pleasant I've never felt grabbed by any of them. I do recall the Ellington influence being strong on several tracks - Dammers played an early Ra with a strong Ellington influence close to the start of his set to show Ra wasn't all free jazz wigouts. I would never consider u a hipster! Agreed with you on Duke too.

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:17 pm
by Adam Blake
I posted this not long ago but it fits here. A rather lovely example of Ra at his most accessible, fancifully pitched floating somewhere between Mingus and Ellington :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BBzO-vferY

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2014 10:58 pm
by Chris P
Marshall Allen's Sun Ra compilation for Strut, sounds promising:
http://www.thewire.co.uk/news/32107/marshall-allen-compiles-sun-ra-material-for-strut

PS - staying on thread, the 2 times I've seen the Spatial AKA have been 2 particularly memorable & enjoyable gigs of the last decade or so. Really like what they do & how they do it, right on to the acoustic street mob music as they come round the back of the venue & intercept the leaving audience, keeping the party going

Re: JERRY DAMMERS’ SPATIAL A.K.A. ORCHESTRA (and Reggae Ensemble

PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2014 11:14 pm
by Adam Blake
Woo! That Soundcloud track is a stone groove, my man, and funnily enough, given Garth and my exchange above, remarkably Mingus-esque in form. It's a blues. A convoluted minor key blues, but a blues nonetheless, and with masses of bottom end, complete with bowed bass solo. I had forgotten how fond Ra was of baritone sax (it might even be bass on this) and trombone.

And what a gorgeous ending. Cheers!