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Cosmic Engineering

Image sun ra spread
A collection of Sun Ra artefacts on the left [courtesy Gregory Ego] and CD sleeves from Art Yard records on the right. From the Headpress book Sun Ra




by John Sinclair & Dylan Harding

Brixton Market, London, July 7, 2009

JERRY DAMMERS: Sorry, I’m feeling a little bit naked today. I’m just getting all this new material together for the one rehearsal—it’s a bit crazy. I’ve just managed to get the scores together by the end of it—just in time, you know, always the last minute. I’m not a person who really likes telling people what to do, but you have to, and it’s quite stressful.

JOHN SINCLAIR: What made you take on this project? Where did you get this mission?

DAMMERS: I just got a vision for these bands, and I just want to make them reality. They’re sort of fantasy bands, you know, that’s the thing…

DYLAN HARDING: The Sun Ra project: How long have you been thinking about actually doing that? Is it years? How did that occur to you?

DAMMERS: Well, I had this band called Jazz Odyssey, based on this Spinal Tap thing about you can’t play jazz to a festival crowd. So I formed this band based on that, and we did a few Sun Ra covers and I got that together. That must’ve been about ten, twelve years ago. But everyone was still smoking too much ganga then, and that all sort of disappeared in a cloud of ganga smoke.

HARDING: How big was that band?

DAMMERS: It wasn’t as big… it was about eight or nine people. It was one of those bands where the first person has left the rehearsal before the last person has arrived. It never quite took off. We only did one gig. You know, I had this idea of having a free pub concert inside of the Glastonbury festival, so we went and played at Glastonbury even though we weren’t officially booked, you know. We pretended to be another band, and we managed to get in, so we set up and played.

I started off doing kind of hip hop jazz sessions at the WAG club, the old Whiskey-a-Go-Go, and did some jam sessions there with Jason Yard, who’s still in the band, and in fact we got the vibes player back who was at those original sessions, Roger Bosely, he was at the rehearsal last night.

SINCLAIR: What kind of jazz did this band play?

DAMMERS: It was supposed to be like hip hop jazz, really—funky beats—and at one point it was going to be a crossover between hip hop and jazz. We had a real drummer, but it was very repetitive stuff. Well, like Miles Davis’ last album—like jazz over hip hop beats.

HARDING: Obviously it’s a thought you had, but coming up with the idea that you would actually do the Sun Ra thing in costume, did that come to you in a flash?

SINCLAIR: But what about deciding to do the music? The costumes kind of come with the music, but what about deciding to do the music?

DAMMERS: Oh yeah, the music. Well, the music was the first thing. But I think I’ve always been into jazz, really. I’m not a jazz player, myself…

SINCLAIR: But being into jazz and forming an orchestra to play the music of Sun Ra are kinda two different things, aren’t they? [Laughs.] One is way beyond the other…

DAMMERS: I had this vision of—apart from knowing about Sun Ra earlier—I always had this idea of being a hip hop producer, so I was always searching for break beats and stuff, and that’s when I got into record collecting. And I just dug deeper and deeper into stuff and got more and more…  So Sun Ra’s kinda the ultimate, isn’t he, of something? I’ve been thinking a lot about—yeah, I think he probably was abducted by aliens, and he probably was sent back to…  I’m starting to believe it’s all true.

But the final thing that tipped me into doing it: I got asked to—they had this arts event at the Roundhouse when it first reopened, it was called Space and they had all sorts of art to do with space, and they asked me to DJ a soundtrack to this Russian film about these cosmonauts—they went up into space in the Communist era and while they were there in outerspace, the Communist Party collapsed. And they were in space and they couldn’t come home, because then there was chaos. Because, obviously, being cosmonauts they were right in the thick of the Communist Party, and they sort of very happily had to change sides in order to come down again.

It’s a great film—it’s a documentary, it’s not a…  They were trying to suss out what was going on, and then they started telling them what’s happened, that the regime has changed, and he says something along the lines of, “It’s a new dawn out of the earth” or something like that. And they get back and everything has changed. I didn’t actually use any Sun Ra records in the soundtrack, but—anyway, we had this night, and I just thought that wasn’t enough for one night, so I thought what else shall I do to make it a bit more interesting, and I put together a Sun Ra tribute band. And it was amazing—it all came together in two weeks. You know, I’ve got a good deal of friends who are great musicians, and I got in touch with them and it all came together.

SINCLAIR: Now your members, were they familiar with Sun Ra’s music?

DAMMERS: Were they familiar with it? Yeah, yeah, it’s just to different degrees, yeah. But that was the amazing thing—Sun Ra’s got this very special place, hasn’t he, amongst musicians? Because he sort of stands for the ultimate in a certain… something. It’s hard to say what it is, but through the generations, everybody name-drops Sun Ra.

SINCLAIR: Now what did you do to prepare the music? Did you transcribe it, or get sheet music?

DAMMERS: Yeah, I can read music a little bit—not very well, but I got some help from people in transcribing it, and then I organized it all into kind of a doable structure, you know, because… everything I do has got to be doable, I think that’s the…  

I think the audience can—although they don’t realize it maybe, half the time, but—people can actually feel the structure, relate to the structure of something complicated, how it’s put together and stuff, even if that’s not part of what attracts them.

SINCLAIR: They can feel it. I had a mission at one time to expose regular music audiences to the music of Sun Ra, and they loved it. They went wild. It was very gratifying, because I thought they would. [Laughs.]

DAMMERS: It’s very accessible as well. People think it’s difficult, but it’s not.

SINCLAIR: It was just jazz fans who didn’t get it. Kids who went to a rock & roll show, they loved it. MC5 and Sun Ra—they loved both halves of the bill. It was quite amazing—I thought it was quite a gamble, but it turned out not to be at all.

HARDING: Where did “Sonic” Smith get his idea to dress up in costume? Was that Sun Ra? Because I like to think that that lineage—that Kiss is up on stage because of Sun Ra, you know?

DAMMERS: You’re not going to tell me that Pink Floyd weren’t influenced by Sun Ra. The first album that they played on was this soundtrack to—what’s it called, something about London? [Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London]—and they do this long jam, and if that’s not influenced by Sun Ra, I don’t know what is. And all that space imagery they came up with, I’m sure they got that from him. And I’m sure that—because they like to put themselves around as the inventors of psychedelic music, don’t they, Pink Floyd, but I’m sure they got a lot of it from Sun Ra. I know Pete Townshend was a huge Sun Ra fan—oh yeah, I mean all those hip guys knew all about that in the sixties. They probably weren’t letting on too much, but I’m sure that—I mean, I think that psychedelic music was invented in jazz, definitely, and then a sort of bastardized version was taken on in rock. But the whole idea of that spacy… whatever it is… comes from jazz, from all those spiritual jazz guys.

It’s kind of poetic as well, isn’t it? Oh, very, very poetic. I’ll tell you, Sun Ra—I think with all the space race that was going on, going to the moon, America, black people couldn’t afford to really—well, they weren’t really involved in any of that, so he was having his own space race, you know.

SINCLAIR: You start talking about in the fifties, he was way out there. Nobody talked about space in an artistic context, or having to do with this is space, you know? Space was out there. You shot things at it, like a moon shot. That wasn’t until what, 1969? He’d been into this since the early fifties. When you first saw those album covers with the planets and everything, it was just mind-boggling. But it was all just his vision of the cosmos.

DAMMERS: But he was always just trying to turn things around, wasn’t he, and have a different way of looking at things that always—you get that with Lee Perry as well, that whole thing of whatever the question is, he’ll turn the question on itself and turn it around on you, right?

SINCLAIR: Lee Perry: the Sun Ra of reggae… But Jerry, I’m still kinda interested in the nuts and bolts of putting this thing together and then making it happen—convincing these characters to go along with it.

DAMMERS: I suppose you take Sun Ra’s leadership on that, because like he said, the possible’s already been done, you know, so I suppose it’s just the impossibility of it that’s attractive. But also, that’s the kind of challenge, isn’t it, that he’s laying down—to anybody, really, and I sort of thought, well, ok, in that case, a Sun Ra tribute band—what’s more impossible than that? In a way, you know, because you can’t possibly get close to it. [Laughs.] But I do like the idea of a tribute band—just don’t do one to yourself. Do it to someone who’s worthy of a tribute. Never cover your own material, cover someone else’s. But that seems to be the way of the world now—everything’s a tribute band, so it’s much better to do a tribute to something good.

SINCLAIR: How did you pick the musicians for this project?

DAMMERS: Like I say, Jason Yard was there from those jam sessions that I used to hold years and years ago in the WAG club, so he was there from the beginning. Larry Stebbins I knew from the band Working Week, and he’s been kind of a free jazz stalwart since the sixties—a great player. Zoe Rahman, I heard her first couple of albums and they were really great, and she had that sort of spiritual thing going on. Dennis Baptiste is another really great player that I knew about mostly just through the grapevine, really. And then there’s my pal Ollie Bayley who was in the original Jazz Odyssey band, you know, I’ve been working with him for a long time—we’ve been DJing together, and searching out all these records and tunes and everything. I mean, this band is kind of…

That’s the other thing: covers bands, that’s another great tradition—I spoke to Larry about that, you know. In the sixties and seventies that’s how we came up, that’s how we learned the trade, was doing covers in the clubs, in working men’s clubs, you know, and that’s how everyone’s been. And that’s how you learn. And of course nowadays nobody knows that, but it’s actually a great learning process. I’ll just say that all this is a learning process, that’s why we’re doing it, because by doing covers you can learn about… music, and the whole thing’s a learning process. And that was a great tradition that we thought was worth reviving, really, you know, and now I’m a bit stuck whether I’m a tribute and covers-band purist—I’m scared to do any of my own material. [Laughs.] No, no, I’m joking.

SINCLAIR: How did you go about selecting the repertoire, once you got some guys together to play it?

DAMMERS: Yeah, well, I tend to select it. But that came from the DJ—the band comes from the DJ thing as well, because I did a chess club with a lot of spiritual seventies jazz and free jazz, with some very serious chess players. So we had this little club at the Egyptian Room, in the Atlantic Bar—it was a great room, man, it was all done out in Egyptian, and I used to play the records. They had some very serious hard-core chess players there—I mean, some of the chess players, the older guys, couldn’t take it, because I was playing really free jazz, but the younger guys… “No, no, how else do you play chess? You know what I mean—it drives you on… ” That’s what I was trying to tell the older guys. They said, “We can’t concentrate—it’s too noisy.” And I was saying, “No, no, you can concentrate better.” I was always trying to tell these guys—tell people that free jazz is, like, the most relaxing music there is. But you’ve got to listen to it, not at it—a lot of people listen at it, and they have a bad reaction. But you just go with it, and it takes you where it takes you, you know.

HARDING: Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy…

DAMMERS: That’s right, it’s very therapeutic. So, from the jazz DJing with chess, that’s when I started thinking that we should try playing some of this music. So that’s where it all came around, you know—it’s all back to front. I always had a vision of it being modernized, because I was very much into hip hop, and the beats, and all that, so our versions of it are more beat-oriented. But then Sun Ra invented all of that stuff anyway—he was playing hip hop thirty years before hip hop. You know, a lot of people don’t realize that the more rhythmic, funky stuff that he did, and the more African-based… he was very much taken up by the European kind of avant-garde, but there’s a lot of really funky, African stuff in there.

It was quite funny, because after one gig I came home and I was feeling a bit guilty, you know, should we be playing this guy’s music, and I came home and Jason and the Argonauts was on, Bernard Hermann, and I heard a couple of echoes there as well. You know, he was influenced by everything, and unashamedly, and that’s great. But watching Jason and the Argonauts, I said, “I know that bass line!” That’s a great soundtrack, Bernard Hermann, Jason and the Argonauts, it could be Sun Ra almost.

SINCLAIR: So what are some of the tunes that you are doing?

DAMMERS: There’s one called Soul Vibrations Of Man, which I found on a very obscure album. He had an album called Languidity in the seventies, which is very funky, and it had Disco Kid on the guitar, and the bass player from Pentangle, what’s his name? Richard Thompson. Yeah, he played on that, amazingly. So that was a good starting point, because we wanted to make it quite funky and quite—some of it’s quite danceable, what we do—and there’s his Where Pathways Meet. He did a sort of adaptation of A Love Supreme called Love On A Far Planet, you know, that was a very funky one that he did. We combined that with a—see, I like mixing and matching things—we combined that with a ska tune, which is actually based on a Japanese folk song, so we put a bit of that in there.

And coming up, we’re doing a Cedric Brooks tune, and Cedric Brooks played with Sun Ra. It’s amazing how many people did play with Sun Ra. We did Space Is The Place, that’s a quite obvious one. We do a sort of mixture between Discipline 27 and Retrospect—you know, Retrospect, that’s a great tune. He does a slow version and he does a faster version. You know, we placed Alice Coltrane’s stuff in the mixture.

SINCLAIR: I saw the reviews of your concerts—they were pretty exciting, I thought. I mean, they really liked it.

DAMMERS: Yeah, we’re trying to get a tour together for next year. I’d love to do a residency, I love the idea of a residency. That’s another thing that’s being lost, you know.

SINCLAIR: I went to the Sun Ra residency in Tilburg, Holland, last September, and that was exhilarating. They played every night, and they interacted in the daytime, you know. They had the Arkestra for seven days.

DAMMERS: I saw the Arkestra in Glasgow and they were great out in front, but I also went and stood at the side of the stage where you can hear everything acoustically, and that big band sound—you just can’t beat the actual acoustic sound of it, it’s just fantastic.

SINCLAIR: So the first concerts of the Tribute to Sun Ra were so much fun that you just decided to expand the repertoire?

DAMMERS: Yeah, yeah, the first gig we did, you know, it went so well, everyone had a great time, everyone had a ball, the audience loved it, so what you get from there, we just expanded the repertoire, and we’ve done a few gigs. It’s quite hard to get the gigs, because it’s quite a big job to put it on and then you’ve gotta somehow make it pay. But we’ve just gotta find the promoter—there’s gotta be a promoter out there, and I’m sure it could do fine. I’d just really love to do a residency and find a really good venue and stick to it, and the people would come. We always try and play in really nice venues, generally. We had a gig in Dublin, but we didn’t do that in the end. Dublin was funny—he bought the band and he said, “Have you got any photos?” So I sent the photos over and he canceled the gig. [Laughs.] He didn’t know how he could promote it.


Cosmic Engineering: A tribute to Sun Ra and other mystic mavericks

10 March 2009

Barbican Hall, London

Spatial AKA is:

Jerry Dammers, musical director, selector, keyboards

Denys Baptiste, saxes (Mercury Prize nominee, Mobo award)

Larry Stabbins, saxes (Working Week, free jazz stalwart since sixties)

Zoe Rahman, piano (Mercury Prize nominee, Perrier award winner)

Jason Yarde, saxes

Finn Peters, flute (BBC Jazz award, London Young Jazz Musician award)

Nathaniel Facey, saxes (Empirical, North Sea Jazz EBU award)

Anthony Joseph, poet (author, The African Origins of UFOs)

Francine Luce, vocals (sung with Lester Bowie, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford)

Neil Charles, double bass (Empirical, Soweto Kinch)

Patrick Illingworth, drums (Pinski Zoo)

Crispin “Spry” Robinson, percussion (Galliano)

Robin Hopcraft, trumpet (Soothsayers)

Mat Fox, baritone sax (Happy End, Kinetica)

Harry Brown, trombone (Jazz Warriors, Jazz Jamaica)

Ollie Bayley, electric bass

Guy Clarke, guitar

Steve Gibson, classical percussion, vibes

Image cover sun ra
Sun Ra: Interviews & Essays edited by John Sinclair. Composer, bandleader, pianist, poet and philosopher, Sun Ra is one of the most colourful and enduring of musical legacies, transcending time, place and cultural genres. More about this item»

sun ra  , john sinclair  , jerry dammers  , dylan harding  , spinal tap  , miles davis  , roundhouse  , mc5  , pink floyd  , peter whitehead  , pete townshend  , lee perry  , jazz odyssey  , bernard hermann  , pentangle  ,
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