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Straight no chaser

Space is the Place: Spatial AKA

Paul Bradshaw

London's South Bank is buzzing. It’s the Meltdown and in the RFH Iggy Pop + The Stooges are ready to take the stage. However we are checking in at the QEH to catch Jerry Dammers’ and his flamboyant 20-piece arkestra, the Spatial AKA who are poised to deliver a sonic tribute to the mighty Sun Ra interspersed with dedications to recently departed Coxsone Dodd and Alice Coltrane.

“Ok… yep… I’ll be right there.” Brother Spry tucks away his mobile, drains his glass and sys, “That was Jerry. They’re just about to go on.” As the long tall percussionist casually strides off, Rob G (aka Earl Zinger) laughs and says, “Nothing changes, it was the same with Galliano, we’d all be at the side of the stage ready to go on and someone would say, “Where’s Spry?”

It’s a balmy Tuesday evening and the recently re-opened South Bank Centre is buzzing. It’s the meltdown and on this particularly night our host, Jarvis Cocker, has enlisted the creative talents of jerry Dammers and the Spatial AKA Orchestra. It’s a project that quietly debuted at last year’s Electric Proms and was not to be missed this time round.

As we entered the darkened QEH the 20-piece Spatial AKA Orchestra was in full flight to ‘Springtime Again’ and the musical legacy of the mighty Sun Ra was clearly alive and kicking. Scanning the stage, amid the randomly paced artefacts of space travel, alien forms and ancient Egypt, there were two bas players, a guitarist, a trap drummer, two percussionists – African and classical, a keyboard/piano player, a small army of horn players and at the helm, surrounded by a bank of historically apt and equally precocious keyboards, the musical selectah and arranger, Jerry Dammers.
In their hand crafted costumes, there was an air of anonymity fused with mystery. It was genuine spectacle, and as Jerry announced a version of Enzo Scoppa’s ‘Incident in Fabrica’ you had  an immediate clue that this was no slavish homage to Ra. In fact, the mixing and matching of compositions like Salab Rageb’s ‘Egypt Strut’ with Ra’s ‘Ancient Ethiopia’ was guaranteed to flip the script and have us rooting through the vinyl when we got home.

Upon introducing Dizzy Reece’s sumptuous arrangement for Mike Oldfield’s ‘Theme From Exodus’ the mysterious helmsman also gave us an insight into the themes of Death and Rebirth that were to underpin the performance. While some people clearly thought that this was our host being whimsical he was, in fact, being deadly serious. This performance was an opportunity to pay homage to those musicians and players whose impact will continue to resonate way beyond their passing. His tribute to the late Clement ‘Coxone’ Dodd, which fused the Studio One ska classic ‘ringo’ – a version of a Japanese traditional enka tune – with ‘Love On A Far Planet’ was inspired, but it was the first cosmic  strains of ‘Journey To Satchinanda’ lifted us onto a higher spiritual plane where we could  honour the devotional music of the late Alice Coltrane. Who else in this world would stage a concert where the sublime ‘Journey To Satchinanda’ would unfold into ‘Om Nam Sivay’ and ‘Battle At Armageddon’? As the projected images of Sun Ra flickered to life above the Orchestra it seemed totally tangible that the spirit of that cosmic traveller was in the house. The music swirled around the hall. You couldn’t help but ‘let off!’ as the helmsman heaved into the electronic options that surrounded him. Larry Stabbins was on blistering form and one had to listed closer to decipher whether or not it was Zoe Rahman, Jason Yarde and Denys Baptiste hidden behind those Egyptian masks, whipping up those delicious solos that echoed the bold musical feats of Marsall Allen, John Gilmore, Danny Thompson, James Jackson, Luqman Ali, Disco Kid et al.

We had clearly embarked on a journey and one of the most moving moments – and there were a few – was ‘I’ll Wait For You’, and ethereal composition of Ra’s that featured the haunting vocals of Francine Luce. This piece was dedicated to Jerry’s father, who had also passed away in recent times, and as the tune evolved I felt swept up in wave of emotion that mirrored Jerry’s own sense of loss combined with a weird sensation that maybe one day, in another time, in another dimension… ‘Where Pathways Met’… one would meet those who’ve gone again.

I hope I haven’t painted a picture of doom and gloom ‘cause that was far from the case. The Spatial AKA provide a genuinely uplifting experience, a rollercoaster ride for sure, but one laced with humour. After all these guys did a cover of  ‘I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman’ – a classic Sun Ra single! – which was tinged by the sounds of the Spatial AKA. Te audience was also encouraged to gargle… yes gargle  the hook of ‘Ghost Town’ which was effortlessly mixed with a version of ‘Nuclear War’ featuring the words of poet/writer Anthony Joseph.

The Spatial AKA Orchestra left the same way they arrived. Not in a space ship but chanting and playing, gathering the assembled masses behind them in an avante garde conga line that culminated on the banks of the River Thames beneath a clear sky littered with stars. Without a doubt – Space is the place!

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