Jerry Dammers and Spatial AKA Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 30th March 2010
Formerly founder member and leader of the Specials, Jerry Dammers has long championed more exploratory musical terrain and this latest, much anticipated project, was devoted to cosmic jazz and avant-garde keyboardist extraordinaire, Sun Ra. It promised to take the extended band, audience and auditorium into an altogether different and at times a truly alien musical stratosphere and visually it was an absolute treat. Even before the band came on stage, the audience were able to marvel at an impressive array of space age artificats ranging from Tutenkhamun facsimiles, flashing space mobiles, voodoo masks and Dammers’ own vast electronic keyboard wizardry, fittingly arranged in the shape of a starship enterprise-style cockpit. As the cast members suddenly appeared down the principal aisle, dressed in spaced out garb and entered centre stage, the audience expectation of being transported onto a cosmic musical odyssey heightened considerably. With a near twenty piece band, no less than eight members of the excellent reed section, comprising alto, tenor (Denys Baptiste among the cast) and baritone saxophones plus flautist, keyboardist Zoe Rahman, vibist, tympani and conventional drummers, percussionist, electric and acoustic bassists and even two main vocalists, this was a big band of epic proportions.
The first surprise of many during the evening was an interpretation of one of Erik Satie’s ‘Gnossienne’s’, here transformed into a dub meets jazz head-on classic that had something of a Middle Eastern flavour to it. Dammer’s first utterances were, ‘We’re going backwards in time, forwards in time’, and this was very much an accurate résumé of how the evening would proceed. A minor theme ska piece from the Specials era was totally revitalised with an electric piano solo from the ever excellent Rahman and an Afro-Cuban feel permeated the stage from flute and percussion. It was four numbers in before Dammers openly acknowledged the evening’s direct homage to Sun Ra with a revisting of the seminal, ‘Where pathways meet (Prince of Peace)’ to the impressive visual backdrop of Sun Ra on a large screen with numerous examples of egyptology that Sun Ra was such a devotee of. To a bubbling funk-bass accompaniment, the tenor saxophonist (a Charles Lloyd lookalike if ever there were one), honked and squawked in the style of a mid-1960s Pharoah Sanders complete with a solo from the conguero and ending with vocoder vocals from Dammers himself. An extremely well received piece from the knowledgable crowd.
One of the evening’s highlights was a tribute to Jamaican saxophonist and one-time Sun Ra Arkestra band member Cedric ‘Im Brooks and leader of the legendary Jamaican band Light of Saba that fused reggae and jazz during the 1970s. This is where the Dammers project was at its most successful with a gorgeous rendition of Brooks’ ‘Sabia’, echoey dub provided by Dammers on the keyboards and the brass section in full flow. In turn one homage was followed by another, on this occasion to another Jamaican tenor saxophone legend, Tommy McCook, who graced many a classic recording at the Studio One studios in Kingston. McCook’s anthemic ‘Exodus’ was given the ska treatment. In a far more sedate vein there was heartfelt tribute to Dammers’ own father who had recently passed away with a Sun Ra blues vocal entitled, ‘I’ll wait for you’ with Zoe Rahman very effectively conveying the sombre mood of the piece.
A Jerry Dammers concert would not be complete without at least one of the Specials favourites and ‘Ghost Town’ was arguably the band’s finest moment and a timely one too during the last economic recession. Here Dammers introduced the number in typical eclectic fashion, ‘Have a gargle in your throat’, with audience participation requested. Consequently, a gargled voice instead of the normal vocals accompanied the song along with a poetic rap of the chorus from Trinidadian Anthony Joseph and this was an indication of how Dammers has moved on from this era. The tune was taken at a far more sedate pace than the original, jazzier, but with lyrics emphasized just as emphatically. Jerry Dammers has never been one to avoid political issues and here a later period Sun Ra composition, ‘Nuclear war’ was introduced with once more poetic chanting. Spiritual jazz, as espoused by the recently passed Alice Coltrane, was celebrated on ‘Journey to Satchinanda’ with the original sound of the sitar replaced by vibes and electric piano and on another Coltrane piece, the uptempo, ‘On Armageddon’. A fine interpretation of both. After twenty numbers and almost two and half hours of playing without any break, the band slowly departed stage individually to what was something of a Sun Ra anthem, ‘Space is the Place’, the title track of both a film and album from the early 1970s that attracted a whole new audience to the keyboardist’s music. This was to be no conventional exit, though, and as the audience left the main auditorium, the band were to be found jamming to the same tune in the bar section, much to the delight of the departing crowds. Quite simply, one of the year’s best concerts.