The sound of the universe where space really is the place.
This was the night that the Barbican went truly cosmic and allowed the man from Saturn (or at least his newly appointed ambassador in the gap toothed shape of former Special Jerry Dammers) to visit some of his earthbound fans.
Dammers has been piloting his Spatial AKA Orchestra for a couple of years now but this was their major concert hall outing in London. Billed as Cosmic Engineering, the choice of music reflected Dammers’ interest in other ‘musical mavericks’ on the fringes of jazz – Sun Ra, Martin Denny, Alice Coltrane and ‘Sir’ Coxone Dodd were his unlikely partners in this journey through the spaceways.
To make this ambitious project happen, Dammers has chosen a big band lineup that’s conventional enough. Some of the leading players on the UK jazz scene have been brought together in a terrific frontline – Mercury nominee Zoe Rahman on Fender Rhodes and piano, Nat Facey (most recently with Empirical) on alto, Finn Peters on flute and Larry Stabbins, Denys Baptise and Jason Yarde on tenors. With the vocalists and percussionists this was a stage full – eighteen in total – and I wasn’t counting the various costumed mannequins less than artfully placed on the edges of the stage alongside Captain Scarlet’s spacecraft, African masks, a glitterball or two and assorted Arkana. Add to this a back projection screen which featured cheesy 1950s space travel images alongside rare footage of Sun Ra, Marshall Allen and others dancing around the Pyramids and the scene really was set.
As Dammers positioned himself in front of a bank of 1970s synthesizers – none of which did anything other than squawk and rumble – the band walked onstage through the audience just like the real thing – space costumes and Pharonic headdresses, flowing robes and painted masks.
As perhaps one of the few people in the audience who saw the very last visit of Sun Ra to the UK – at the Brixton Fridge in November 1985 – this looked and felt much like the real thing. And the band were convincing too. There might not have been enough solos of the calibre of Sun Ra’s longtime sidemen but Facey’s long and impassioned outing on a deep and dark version of Where Pathways Meet was awesome. This was Pharoah Sanders with the volume set at 11.
Classic Sun Ra tunes predominated – but there was also space for a twisted version of Nelson Riddle’s Batman theme, Salah Rageb’s Egypt Strut and Moondog’s Bird’s Lament. Throw in a couple of Alice Coltrane classics (including the hypnotic Journey in Satchidananda) and some Cedric Im Brooks and you have a mix made in – well – Saturn, I guess. Remarkably, it all came together: the band were authentically ragged in places, the sound mix was muddy and the graphics primitive but the experience was total. To mix the Specials’ Ghost Town with Ra’s Nuclear War was inspired and Alice Coltrane’s Armageddon managed to be both chilling and celebratory.
Dammers explicitly linked the Sun Ra cosmic sound to the deep jazzy grooves of Jamaican saxophonist Cedric Im Brooks (who always acknowledged his debt to Ra), the Cairo Jazz Band of Salah Rageb (who once dedicated a song to Ra) and Coxone Dodd (whose Studio One sound had Leroy Sibbles’ locked in basslines not a million miles away from the cyclical bass figures of Ronnie Boykin, the Ra bass player). Dammers seemed to have achieved the impossible: bringing all this passionate, deep and spiritual music together into a holistic soup that simply worked.
This wasn’t music for everyone but if you were new to the Sun Ra experience it was as close to the real deal as anyone is likely to get following Ra’s departure back to Saturn in 1993. Ending with – of course – Space is the Place, this was a concert experience that few would forget – even if they tried to. As they walked out of the hall they were met with the horn section who had gone out as they came in and who now put a smile on everyone’s face as they carried on playing more choruses of what is probably now the Sun Ra theme tune – “space is the place, yes space is the place…”