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Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A Orchestra at the Norfolk And Norwich Festival 2012

Bruce Lindsay By
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Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A Orchestra
Theatre Royal Norfolk And Norwich Festival
Norwich, UK
May 26, 2012

It only took a quick glance at the stage to confirm that this was to be no ordinary jazz gig: Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A Orchestra doesn't do ordinary. Dammers, leader and keyboard player of '70s ska band The Specials, formed his Spatial A.K.A Orchestra in 2006 in tribute to Sun Ra. Since then, the band's repertoire has expanded, the visuals have become ever gaudier, and the Orchestra has grown in size and scope. The sheer logistics involved in getting the group together means that it performs relatively rarely: a Spatial A.K.A Orchestra concert is a special event.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival brought the Spatial A.K.A Orchestra to Norwich's Theatre Royal, the city's largest theatre and possibly the only venue in town with a stage capable of housing this musical behemoth. The stage was filled to overflowing. Instruments, music stands, chairs, manikins in Egyptian costumes clutching fake guitars, spaceships and astronauts all had their places: only the musicians were absent.

Dammers was the first to appear. Wearing a golden mask, he clambered across the stage to take his place within a bank of seven or eight keyboards, knocking one over in the process: "It's all part of the show" he told the crowd by way of explanation. Seconds later the music began: a single, uninterrupted, three-hour set encompassing jazz, ska, funk, reggae, rap and classical music.

The first few minutes, performed by a small group including Dammers and vocalist Anthony Joseph, drew together Ra's "Springtime," Captain Beefheart's "Frownland" and fragments of Gil Scott-Heron's poetry. The rest of the band then entered from the rear of the auditorium and took their places on stage dressed as Pharaohs, explorers, space aliens and masked super-heroes. At least 25 instrumentalists and four vocalists graced the stage over the course of the evening.

The Spatial A.K.A Orchestra is almost a who's who of the British scene. The band for this performance featured players such as tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste, flautist Finn Peters, double bassist Larry Bartley and vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, who was particularly resplendent in an oversized Pharaoh's head-dress which he kept in place for the entire set.

Ra's music remains central to the Orchestra's performances, but Dammers has expanded the band's repertoire. Alongside Ra's "I'll Wait For You" were Andrew Hill's "Illusions;" with a beautiful piano solo from Zoe Rahman; "Sweet Lorraine" and "Samson" by Jamaican musician Tommy McCook; Khan Jamal's "Dark Warrior" and Dammers' irrepressibly jaunty "The Intergalactic Jet Set."

Unsurprisingly in a three-hour program, the energy flagged somewhat mid-set, with Martin Denny's "Jungle Madness" lacking the focus and musical inventiveness which characterized the rest of the songs, but the low point was brief and the high energy levels and tight grooves soon returned. A few audience members left the auditorium an hour or so into the performance, but those who remained became increasingly appreciative of the Orchestra's efforts as the concert went on.

While there were many musical highpoints—Rahman's piano playing, Harry Brown's rich-toned trombone and Jason Yarde's piercing soprano saxophone were especially praiseworthy—the performer of the night was undoubtedly veteran trombonist Rico Rodriguez, MBE. His previously announced guest spot had been eagerly awaited, but when Dammers first announced him Rodriguez couldn't be found. Dammers hastily started another tune, only to find Rodriguez walking serenely onstage mid-song, raising his trombone aloft to acknowledge the warm applause of the audience before walking off stage again. He returned for "Ghost Town," Dammers' 1981 number one hit with The Specials and one of British pop music's best-loved songs, now renamed "Ghost Planet," with updated lyrics. Rodriguez delivered a tough, rasping solo perfectly suited to the mood of the song.

The band encored with Ra's "Space Is The Place," as film of Ra was projected onto the stage, then closed with Alice Coltrane's arrangement of the spiritual "Going Home." It was a beautifully balanced ending to a powerful show from the Spatial A.K.A Orchestra.

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