Sunday, 20 November 2011

Creativity and leadership: Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra

I went to see this wonderful band last week.  It was an absolutely brilliant concert: surprising, stimulating, awe-inspiring, tender, funny, and above all musical: it made me think again about tunes I thought I knew, and introduced me to wonderful songs new to me (in particular Blue Pepper by Duke Ellington, and I'll wait for you by Sun Ra).  The band consists of...wait for it....27 musicians (or thereabouts - there were also a number of mannequins positioned in and around the band, some of them apparently playing instruments, which made counting people difficult!): 9 brass and woodwind, 5 strings, 3 guitars, 2 keyboards, 4 drums, percussion and vibes, and 4 singers.  The music was eclectic (an overused word I know but absolutely precise in this case), encompassing Captain Beefheart, 'Library Music' (not sure what this is), Ellington, Coltrane, a reworked and even more doom-laden Ghost Town by the original Specials, cheerful ska classics, Edgar Broughton, Johnny Clarke, Dvorak, In the Bleak Midwinter, and especially the music of Sun Ra, pioneer and promoter of black consciousness and interplanetary travel, spiritual mentor and forerunner of George Clinton and Funkadelic.  Spatial AKA, like the Sun Ra orchestra, were kitted out in glittery and vaguely Egyptian robes, hairpieces, sunglasses and/or masks, arrived on stage piecemeal from amongst the audience, while making a collective sound like a gathering storm of didgeridoos (one instrument unaccountably absent from the proceedings).  They played continuously for three hours, and then for another half an hour out in the lobby as everyone was leaving!

Visually, the movements of the band members and their costumes were augmented by a strange set involving already mentioned mannequins, three of which were painted silver and suspended above the band as if flying, along with what I gradually realised was a small lunar module about to crash to earth.  Behind the band was a continuously changing and layered projection of slides, videos, and psychedelic lightshow, the like of which I haven't seen for years: it took me happily back to New Riders of the Purple Sage at Surrey University in about 1972!  But this backdrop wasn't just for decoration, it imparted a powerful cultural and political flavour to the music, so that even though there were almost no overt political statements or references during the set, the whole experiene was flavoured with a clear enough set of political messages and affiliations.

There were so many terrific musical and visual moments: Alcyona Mick playing whirlwind piano solos while apparently motionless, a kettle drum solo involving continuous de-tuning and retuning of the drums during the solo, wonderful ensemble arrangements and solos amongst the brass, woodwind and strings sections, complex textures added by percussion and vibes, and poetry and scat singing as well as a joyous impersonation of the late great Captain Beefheart by Edgar Broughton, himself something of a legend in his own lunchtime for those of us of a certain age, singing Frownland from Trout Mask Replica.  Johnny Clarke, the great Jamaican reggae singer, came on like a cheerful psychedelic Santa Claus, all in yellow and with locks reaching down to his calves!  For me the single best moment was Francine Luce singing Sun Ra's I'll wait for you, in memory of her father.  The band's website has a few short clips of music, and there are more on Youtube, but don't let anything stop you from seeing them live if you can.

Why am I writing about the Spatial AKA Orchestra here, in a blog focussed mainly on education?  Well, the sheer size of the band got me thinking about the kind of organisation needed to put a concert like this together, and this led on to a perennial topic of thought and conversation with me: the qualities needed by the people who run such enterprises.  I'd love to talk to Jerry Dammers about this: his must be an incredibly complex and difficult job.  He is thought of as a song-writer and arranger, but he's obviously much more than that.  The economics of big bands can't be easy: many, if not all, of the individual members of the Spatial AKA are absolutely at the top of the tree in their various specialisms, and they all need to make a living.  I read somewhere that Miles Davis's legendary Birth of the Cool septet only existed long enough to make a  single record, and didn't play any gigs, because even with only seven they couldn't earn enough in New York in the late 40s.  Ellington and Basie managed it somehow, but for them it may have been easier because popular musical taste demanded large dance bands, at least during some periods; that is hardly the situation in 2011.  Captain Beefheart's uncompromising vision led him, allegedly, to shut his band up for a year to practice, hardly feeding them anything, let alone paying them, until they were note-perfect on Trout Mask Replica.   The band-leader's job, apart from choosing and arranging songs (for 27 parts!), includes all the organisational issues of publicity and marketing, negotiating and agreeing contracts with concert halls and promoters, travel and accommodation (for 27!), and then, most interestingly of all, the people-management issues within the band itself.  There must be so many potential headaches among such a large group of creative people!  Is Jerry an Arsene Wenger, an Alex Ferguson, or an ashen-faced Ron Knee?  His musical arrangements depend for their success on the skills of all the individuals playing them: suppose some of them aren't so enthusiastic about them?  This is analogous to footballers having to play within the tactical system designed by their manager: we know all too well how easily confidence of the manager in the player's capability, or of the player in the manager's system, can be broken down - similar issues must arise in big bands too.

All of this points to the fact that an enterprise like the Spatial AKA Orchestra is no trivial project, and this makes me marvel all the more at last week's gig: it was a triumph not just of musical creation and re-creation, but of leadership and organisation too.  Each depends on the other.  Thanks to everyone involved!


  1. Good review today in "The Independent"

  2. I can't find it. Was this a review of the Barbican concert on the 18th or a more recent gig?