Second Life: An Interview With The Pyramids

The Pyramids, a criminally under-recognised spiritual jazz collective, were birthed at the dawn of the 1970s in Ohio, and included saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, flautist Margo Simmons, bassist Kimathi Asante and drummer Donald Robinson. Delving deep into a world of pan-African rhythms and melodies, they combined them in novel ways with the psychedelic modal jazz simmering in America at the time. The group released three private-press records in the US throughout the 70s, highly regarded by collectors, which consistently fetched incredibly large sums of money. 2010 saw the group reform for a tour across Europe, and last month they released a brand new album, Otherworldly. Max Cole investigates their fiery legacy.

The original cosmic-minded afro-psychedelic ensemble from the 70s are back and playing harder than ever. With a new album and live shows around the world, The Pyramids prove that playing with fiery intent and spreading an interstellar message of equality and freedom will never go out of fashion.

Like their geometric namesake, The Pyramids seem like they’ve been around for a very long time. Their three self-released LPs command a certain hushed reverence over jazz collectors and fans of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and the AACM. With no more than 1000 copies of each album, fans were lucky if they clapped eyes on an original copy, let alone owned one, and they are considered treasured artifacts of an era. In the aftermath of riots and social upheaval over assassinations and civil rights in the USA around the turn of the 70s, The Pyramids eschewed conventional jazz and major record labels, and took matters into their own hands, linking directly with Africa and their ancestors across the Atlantic. Only too aware of the power of the media and the entertainment industry, having witnessed Curtis Mayfield and Superfly capture the imaginations of millions of young Americans, the battle for the consciousness of a people was waged in earnest.

The Pyramids and their avant-garde, theatrical performances are part of a long lineage of musicians who used jazz and free improvisation to express a global, humanist music. With one foot firmly in the camp of John and Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Horace Tapscott, and the other in the politically-conscious funk of James Brown and On The Corner era Miles, they captured something of the quest for alternate ways of living in the 70s, as America looked to the stars and ripped up the rule book. Witnessing the band in 1973 performing the title track of their first LP Lalibela, zoning out for nearly half an hour of extended motifs and cross-rhythmic grooves with the ensemble decked out in full colourful African costumes, could easily have brought on a revelation, even without any psychedelic substances. Their move from Ohio to San Francisco seems a fairly natural progression, as they set to work on their third LP Birth Speed Merging in the sun-drenched, acid-soaked capital of liberalism.

“San Francisco,” remembers Pyramids leader Idris Ackamoor, “in particular in the early 70s, was really known for mind expansion: mind expanding drugs, communal living and the psychedelic nature of the music. It was a little bit after the space race, and we were searching. Particularly in San Francisco people were searching for other ways of existence, whether it was the communal connection with the hippies, the free love movement or the mind expanding drugs, to transcend some of the negative things that were happening here on Earth and to reach out to something else.”

This sense of quest and discovery is at the heart of The Pyramids and what drives them. While their musicianship is perhaps more accomplished than it was back in the 70s, their exploratory drive is still as strong as ever. It’s the same drive that sent them to Africa in the first instance, and it set them apart from many of their contemporaries. Koki Emura of EM Records, one of the first to trigger the recent resurgence of interest in The Pyramids with his 2006 retrospective, asks:

“Do you know of any other African-American spiritual free jazz group from the late 1960s to early 70s, who had visited or stayed in African countries while still active in the US? When many people mentioned Mother Africa by calling for unity, revolution and recurrence? Even Pharaoh Sanders didn’t, as far as I know, but Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids were one of a few, or perhaps the only group who actually visited their roots in those turbulent times. It should have given their performance a crucial difference from other jazz units in the US, no doubt. You can hear it in every direction of their music, and in the abstruse philosophy of their costumes.”

Back in the early 70s the band made use of their college program. They met at Ohio’s Antioch College, and began studying under visiting professor Cecil Taylor. The college had a strong tradition of activism and progressive political thought, as well as a pioneering senior year program called Antioch International Abroad, where students could use their tuition money to travel and study for nine months in foreign countries. “We went to Europe and played in Amsterdam and Paris,” percussionist Bradie Speller reminisces. “Then we travelled to Africa, where we gathered instruments, costumes, and melodies. It’s what really helped shape our music. Then when we came back to the United States, we had something no one else had before.”

For The Pyramids, the main way to empower the poor, and break the grip that America’s urban ghettos had over the mindset of its inhabitants, was to introduce a new set of rituals. Their live performances were directly inspired by their trips to Morocco, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, combining tribal rituals, with the sense of belonging they shared when playing with Cecil Taylor. “We were really like a family band,” Idris explains, “and about creating ritual on stage. We really departed from being a jazz band, we were different. Playing with Cecil, that was about creating community on stage, about ritual, magic and costume drama. It was very theatrical. It was in the same breath as Sun Ra.”

“We were really like a family band, and about creating ritual on stage. It was about creating community on stage, about ritual, magic and costume drama.”

After a reunion concert in 2007 re-sparked The Pyramids’ musical friendships, they embarked on a European tour in 2010 and started a new chapter in their story. Unlike the cheque-book-driven tours that fuel many band reunions, The Pyramids point out that their re-assembly is all about the music. Speaking on the start of the tour, Bradie Speller said, “The core of The Pyramids are together again, and it’s the music that has brought us together. The cycle of time, the seeds that were planted over 30 years ago, have spouted and they’ve gotten strong. This is a very special moment, in musical history and in our own personal history, cause the music we’re about to do is gonna be fire!”

The exuberance and feeling of discovery that characterises their first three LPs hasn’t been tempered over time, but rather fine-tuned, and their constant search for new techniques and rhythms are put into practise on their recent fourth LP Otherworldly. It shows these musicians at their masterful best, combining styles and motifs that they’ve picked up over the decades and honed to fluent perfection.

There’s a definite nod to the Art Ensemble and their Dada-esque drama, especially on tracks like “Time Capsule”, with its mixture of flutes and whistles and percussion. But they can also create soundscapes that are wholly unique. On “Nebulosity”, a dense cloud of free guitar and electronic improvisation conjures up shimmering stardust from distant galaxies, while the beguiling “Boundless Eternities” sounds like the band were trapped inside Lord Quas’s bong, with pitched out chants amidst plucked strings and bubbling whistles. The album isn’t all mind-bending, reality-shifting tunings, though. “Memory Ritual”, which book-ends the record, harks back to classic 70s Pharaoh, with its modal bass motif and gentle groove that you could imagine the band stretching out for a whole week. And while they show they can even twist a simple funky backbeat into their own strange shapes, they still keep true to their mantra of creating music “to make the soul burst from the body.” In that respect, The Pyramids will stand as a testament to the incorporeal for many more decades to come.  

By Max Cole on November 16, 2012

On a different note