Berliner Zeitung (National newspaper in Germany) Monday 26 February 2013
Review of 2013 Berlin Concert
Space Patrol from Saturn
Fantastic: Jerry Dammers and his Spatial AKA orchestra interpreted the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra at The House Of World Cultures. At the end, it was only human fatigue which prevented them from playing longer.
After almost three and a half hours, people still want to dance in the aisles to Jerry Dammers Spatial AKA Orchestra, whilst some of the musicians are already filing out through the auditorium to the dressing rooms, still offering a few sounds to newly arriving visitors to the building.
It was a truly overwhelming and amazingly boundary-free concert, which on Sunday concluded the four-day HKW programme 'Unhuman Music'. After improvised whimsy, glaciers and every kind of machine and robot, the finale would most inevitably be presented by aliens, relying on Dammers' big band and the teachings of Sun Ra, most probably the first and best-travelled Afronaut in history.
Evoking the spirit of Sun Ra
The story goes that in the early 20th Century Sun Ra came here from Saturn as Herman Blount, in order to bring us closer to the music of the distant planet: and that then in 1993, almost eighty years later, he returned home to Saturn. Jerry Dammers in turn, apparently an attentive pupil, put together his big band in 2006, first and foremost as a one-off tribute to the master. However, the acclaim was such, that since then he still drums up the musicians for occasional performances.
The logistics alone of executing this, seem rather unhuman. For one thing the Spatial AKA comprise eminent musicians from British jazz, including pianist Zoe Rahman, saxophonist Denys Baptiste and flautist Finn Peters. Dammers' keyboard castle looks like a UFO command centre; as indeed the scenery, with its numerous hanging Alien figures, Egyptian sarcophagi and space gliders, all tell of a most grueling labour of love. And ultimately the musicians must be dressed, like the Sun Ra Arkestra, in gorgeous flowing, sparkling, colourful, antique, Egyptified space garments, Mongolian cloth caps and masks. Yet, the greatest achievement of the Spatial AKA is to evoke the spirit of Sun Ra musically and in doing so, manifestly describe and expand the already enormous musical cosmos.
At first Dammers appears as a most unlikely candidate for such a jazz project. Older people know the 57-year-old as the brains behind The Specials, which as a Ska band in 1979 encapsulated the Anglo-Caribbean connection with Punk. Dammers also founded the 2 Tone Label, which, along with The Selecter and Madness, were at the centre of the Ska Revival. And in 1985 as The Special AKA he delivered a kind of global anti-apartheid anthem in the form of 'Free Nelson Mandela'. Since the late 80s he has worked primarily as a DJ, cropping up occasionally when the likes of Pete Doherty, Tricky or Elvis Costello were covering his Specials songs. Nevertheless since the nineties, he spent a lot of time jamming in Jazz clubs, and in fact smuggled his first Sun Ra Tribute band into the Glastonbury Festival under false pretences.
Exhaustion alone prevented them from carrying on
“From Ska to Ra is not such a big leap,” he has said. “The best instrumental ska consists basically of a sort of dreamy, spiritual jazz, over a street rhythm.”
In concert he proves this a few times with wonderfully stuttering choppy ska, crossed effortlessly with Ra's trademark strangely lopsidedly toned instrumental moves; to which purpose he brings the septuagenarian Jamaican ska trombonist Rico, to the stage. They already played together in The Specials. Reminding us of a jazz dub version of their hit, Ghost Town, the angry social commentary which is complemented tonight by some current motifs. Immediately afterwards they play Sun Ra's Cold-War Reflection 'Nuclear War' from 1982: “If they push that button, you can give your ass a kiss goodbye.”
One should note of course that Dammers' concept dwells more on the teemingly turbulent, hooting & buzzing, powerful side of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The Spatial AKA compensate for a certain lack of elegance, not only with enthusiastic energy, but also with enormous stylistic breadth, from Duke Ellington to the exotica of Martin Denny, from the space music of Space Patrol Orion composer Peter Thomas, to British library music and hip hop beats. In between Anthony Joseph recites atmospheric poems about the African origins of UFOs and Francine Luce brings Dammers a voice that sings not only beguiling blues like Ra's “I'll Wait For You”, but also near shockingly surprising inhuman sounds - the way she can scat, in the manner of bird-like chirping. Finally everything leads to Sun Ra's credo 'Space Is The Place', heftily marching like a ribald P-Funk at the audience.
In short: It was wonderful, and the only reason to stop at some point was because of plain, wholly human, exhaustion.