Jerry Dammers’ musical odyssey of the unexpected

Blasting off into the outer reaches of jazz, funk, dub and hip hop, The Specials' Jerry Dammers brings his remarkable 23-piece Spatial AKA Orchestra to Norwich. SIMON PARKIN reports.

'Expect the unexpected,' says Jerry Dammers of tomorrow's appearance at Norwich Theatre Royal of his 23-piece Spatial AKA Orchestra.

Best known as founder of The Specials and 2 Tone, Jerry has for the past few years taken on the role of big band leader of this remarkable musical project.

His former band mates have been reviving The Specials on a series of tours, choosing not to involve him — still a touchy subject he prefers not to talk about. But it's their loss and our gain as he has instead set the controls to explore the outer reaches of cosmic jazz, reggae, exotica, funk, dub, jungle and dubstep in the company of some of the country's finest jazz improvisers.

Originally a tribute to space jazz maverick Sun Ra, the orchestra has since expanded both its repertoire and number.

'The orchestra started off as part of an arts event which was about space and space music so I put together a tribute to Sun Ra,' says Jerry.

'Since then it expanded. We now do quite a wide range, from jazz and some Sun Ra music still to some reggae and ska and beyond. But altogether there are a lot of old tunes they are all still funky with hip hop and dub beats, so it's very modern sounding.

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'We do versions of some of my songs from The Specials — Ghost Town [now re-titled Ghost Planet] and Man At C&A — plus we also do a couple of new songs by me as well. I'm a big fan of melodies, so we even do versions of exotica music by people like Martin Denny.'

Sun Ra, who died in 1993, still remains a touchstone though. 'I've been aware of him for a long time. A lot of people think of him as very avant garde and he was adopted by European avant garde jazz lovers, but he also did a lot of very funky African drumming based music which wasn't really known about. If you delve more deeply into his music you come across all this stuff that is much more accessible and it is this that we highlight rather than the atonal squeaky stuff. There are a lot of links between people like Lee Perry and Sun Ra; it's all what I'd call black mythological music.'

The orchestra line-up now boasts a who's who of Britain's best jazz players, including pianist Zo� Rahman, saxophonists Jason Yarde, Denys Baptiste, Nathaniel Facey and Shabaka Hutchings, flutist Finn Peters and singers Anthony Joseph and Francine Luce.

However don't find the jazz origins misleading. 'I always say that this is a hip hop band; it's not a jazz band,' insists Jerry. 'The ideas behind it have come from collecting obscure records, from my DJing and seeking out break beats and coming across all this amazing stuff. In many ways this is like DJing with real musicians.'

The orchestra has previously staged a series of highly acclaimed performances at Glastonbury and the Barbican. Their landing in Norwich will see them also joined by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez and dubstep whizz-kid The Spaceape.

'Rico has long been a good friend of mine,' says Jerry. 'I've kept in touch since Two Tone. One of the best things about being in The Specials was getting the chance to play with Rico. A lot of people don't know but when the Fun Boy Three left The Specials, Horace Panter [bassist], John Bradbury [drummer] and myself did a tour of Europe with Rico. I also played on a couple of his albums and

'I'm really proud of that, they are some of the best recordings I've ever been involved in. He can still play a very melancholic soulful trombone.'

The Spaceape has appeared with the orchestra before and Jerry is excited to be working with one of the pioneers of dubstep.

'People will know his stuff with Kode 9 which is dubstep but a bit broader than that. We're really excited that he'll be joining us again.

'Although some of the songs are old — we even do a tune by Eric Satie which was written at the tune of the last century — young people that see the show really seem to like it, especially as we're mixing that with dubstep and jungle and really modern genres. It's a real mash-up of future and past. It all goes into the big musical mincing machine.'

Coming out of the other end are also a string reworkings of Specials classics. 'It has been good to revisit some of the later stuff, tracks that my former band mates didn't really touch on their tours. We do International Jet Set, but it's now called Intergalactic Jet Set. The Special AKA album In The Studio had a lot more pseudo-jazzy elements and was a bit more funky, but that sort of music I was actually playing before The Specials. In between times I also had another band called Jazz Odyssey — named after the Spinal Tap song — which was the forerunner of this orchestra.'

Organising such a large and diverse group of musicians must be hard work? 'If people knew the amount of work that goes into it they would definitely come and see it, because so much goes into getting it together, especially for a one-off gig like this.

We have got some really fantastic musicians, some of the very best jazz players out there.

'It's just fantastic that they all want to play music with me and all my crazy ideas.'

? Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra, Norwich Theatre Royal on May 26, �21-�5.50, 01603 766400,