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The Times   Thursday 12 March 2009

Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra at the Barbican

Alyn Shipton

The late Sun Ra created one of the most individual sound worlds in 20th-century music. He redefined big-band composition by ignoring the normal roles of brass, reeds and rhythm, and was as happy to offer a lengthy solo spot to his timpanist as he was to his saxophonists or trumpeters. He dressed his band in Ancient Egyptian costumes or hand-me-down Star Trek uniforms . When Ra died in 1993, although members of his orchestra carried on, it seemed that his musical spirit of adventure had been beamed up to the mother ship for good.

However, Jerry Dammers, one-time ska revivalist with the Specials and the Special AKA, has recreated not just the sound world but the entire paraphernalia of a Sun Ra concert. Amid spacesuits, mummies, a floating lunar module and lava lamps aplenty, his 16-piece band, plus vocalists, roared into such Ra classics as Egypt Strut and We’re Gonna Unmask the Batman, the latter brilliantly deconstructing Neal Hefti’s TV theme.

Dammers’s own 1981 hit Ghost Town got the Ra treatment, as did The Birds’ Lament by another musical outsider, the Viking-helmeted street musician Moondog. This featured striking saxophone solos from Jason Yarde and Denys Baptiste, some clever playing across the beat by the keyboardist Zoe Rahman and sumptuous flute from Finn Peters. 

Dammers brilliantly captured Sun Ra’s heady mix of chaos and headlong swing, although the tricky Soul Vibrations of Man was played markedly better than the last time I heard Ra himself do it. Everyone entered into the music with total commitment and, when the band finally marched offstage to Space is the Place, they carried on for ten minutes in the foyer, reluctant to come back down to Earth.