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Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids
Shaman! Cal Cashin , September 1st, 2020 09:43

For the first time in an illustrious career, the cosmic bandleader looks backwards instead of forwards, finding something resembling euphoria from detritus

Idris Ackamoor’s late career flourish has been the most unexpected of joys. The tenor sax virtuoso’s career arch is certainly unusual, but since 2011’s Otherworldly comeback, and the lavishly revered and politically-charged 2016 and 2018 follow ups We Be All Africans and An Angel Fell, Ackamoor and his group the Pyramids – for whom he has always been the leader and composer – remain prolific and volatile.

Shaman! is a stellar edition to the saxophonist’s back catalogue, but to understand it’s stark beauty and occasional bravado flourishes we must look back upon Ackamoor’s life and work – for Shaman! is an album that spends its duration doing just that. Idris Ackamoor’s back catalogue is strewn with hyper-futuristic jazz, music that’s so far ahead of its time that that time may not yet have come; but on this latest offering, for potentially the first time in his musical career, certainly with the Pyramids, Ackamoor looks back, and not forward.

Idris Ackamoor grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he now lives once more. After graduating school, he went to college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Ackamoor’s life and career would be shaped by teacher, mentor and friend Cecil Taylor, who taught Ackamoor for two years at Antioch college.

“Cecil taught me a lot about music, life, and more than anything, Africa,” Ackamoor told tQ’s Sean Kitching on the last album cycle, “in terms of my inspiration and influence, Cecil was probably my primary influence. I loved Cecil, as a brother, as a teacher, as a mentor – he was so encouraging.”

In between Cecil Taylor’s tutelage and the release of Shaman!, Ackamoor has acted out a storied career. With Margaux Simmons and Kimathi Asante, who he met as part of the Cecil Taylor Black Music Ensemble, Ackamoor fled America as part of a sorta ‘study abroad’ programme to experience Europe, where he promptly formed The Pyramids and headed south with them, to Africa.

Shaped by long stays in Dakar, Accra, Nairobi, and a tour of Ethiopia, The Pyramids’ music has a proud African influence – be that through the frenzied talking drums and congas that run through Lalibela like The Nile, or the communal and ritualistic live shows that the group deployed in their 70s heyday. The Pyramids’ first three records, their entire 70s output, brought this exciting sound back to the States, where, despite a relative lack of contemporary sales, it sits alongside Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic in the Afrofuturist cannon.

The group split in 1977, as the members went their separate ways, having sold very few records in their time. Thanks to a surge of interest from Gilles Peterson-types digging through the crates, Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids reformed in the early parts of the last decade, returning with a trio of cosmic LPs that carried on the good work in 2011, 2016 and 2018. Whilst these albums tempered the frenzy that pervades the band’s 70s output, they’re magnificent additions to the band’s legacy. At this point, Ackamoor has rightly and undoubtedly been codified as a figure of legend, but these are no heritage albums.

As we reach the year 2020, the most futuristic-sounding and dystopic of all years, the time is now for Ackamoor to look back having spent so long blazing forwards. The Pyramids have undergone significant lineup shifts in times of late, and flautist Dr Margaux Simmons remains the only other original Pyramid, but on Shaman! Ackamoor remains able to get fantastic performances out of all around him, whilst pushing himself to new heights.

The album’s magnificent centrepiece ‘Theme For Cecil’ is testament to this. Ackamoor plays the alto on this track, and does so with equal parts stately sophistication and righteous gusto. Atop upbeat conga and electric bass rhythms, Ackamoor breathes white hot flames through his horn, free-jazz fire dances, whilst Simmons’ flute solos with similar dazzling brilliance.

‘Theme For Cecil’ is a reference to the mentor that inspired The Pyramids nearly 50 years ago, Cecil Taylor, following his 2018 passing. It’s a fitting elegy, that upholds all the cliches about how best to remember a lively and inspiring character.

‘When Will I See You Again?’ carries on in a similar vein, even more reflective, and ultimately extremely affecting. Ackamoor is no longer mediated by brass, as he delivers an arresting spoken-word piece about the loss of loved ones atop melancholy Pyramids waltz.

With the world at its current juncture, Ackamoor’s words could apply to a number of things, be that the widespread police brutality in Ackamoor’s native USA, the devastating effects of the worldwide pandemic, or the passing of Cecil Taylor. “A freak storm comes / A hole opens in your heart, when too soon a loved one parts”, his stark voice exclaims. Indeed, whatever meaning you bring to ‘When Will I See You Again?’, it’s a potent and beautiful requiem.

A mood of melancholia colours a lot of Shaman!, but it doesn’t completely characterise it. On ‘Salvation’, Ackamoor exercises his virtuosity to propel the album to something resembling euphoria from detritus. Sizzling tenor sax a la Pharoah Sanders spirals over ten dizzying minutes of regimented flute rhythms, as his sax motifs run freer and freer.

Shaman! is rich in fantastic performances, be that Bobby Cobbs dustbowl guitar twangs on the title track, or Sandra Poindexter’s violin squalls throughout. The chemistry between Ackamoor and Simmons’ brass and woodwind respectively is, however, what dominates the majority of the album. Whilst on occasion, Shaman! becomes almost too easy to listen to, fading into the background with its note perfect harmonies, the album always pulls you right back in again, with a new musical idea even richer than before.

Half a century on from his first classes with mentor Cecil Taylor, Ackamoor has earned his place in the cannon of experimental jazz. Looking back at Ackamoor’s career, and now his latest album, it seems no one else is more worthy of a public reappraisal and celebration. After a life of musical excellence (as well as tap dancing acclaim – a different story for another day), the Pyramids’ godhead traverses uncharted waters, with results that are ultimately among the most rewarding in his back catalogue. Beautiful eulogies, luscious instrumentation and the occasional funk freakout, Shaman! is up there with the best of all of Ackamoor’s works.