The Pyramids are a group of Great Black Music or Afro-jazz survivors – direct contemporaries of The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Led by Alto saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, they first came together in the early 70s at Antioch College, Ohio, under the tutelage of Cecil Taylor. The core members then went travelling, and a few months spent living in Ghana exposed them to the influence of both Northern Ghanaian rhythms and the more urbane South African Hugh Masakela.
Africa evidently remains a big influence on the music’s conception. In an article in The Wire magazine (July 2016), Ackamoor tells Geeta Dyal that We Be All Africans (Strut) has “a lot to do with my love for (Nigerian) Fela Kuti”, albeit The Pyramids’ music, which is just as infectious, is neither as politically nor as musically forceful, direct and politically charged as Kuti’s Afrobeat.
The Pyramids disbanded in 1977, but was enjoying one of its occasional revivals when I saw them perform in London in 2012 (reviewed here). At that time they’d reunited with Bradie Speller, a percussionist in the original lineup who opted out of the African odyssey. Speller was one of the 2012 group’s most animated and engaging players, so it’s a shame to find him departed along with Kash Killion, a multi-instrumentalist I dubbed the group’s “secret weapon” for his elastic timekeeping on contrabass.
in place of Speller and Killion, this lineup boasts Sandy Poindexter on violin and vocals, making a string trio with the twinned basses of founding member Kimathi Asante (electric bass) and Heshima Mark Williams (double bass) – Williams’ own history with the group stretches back to their early 70s return from Africa.
With three stringed instruments and twinned percussionists in the lineup behind Ackamoor’s saxophone, the group sound has a natural symmetry, and the absence of Speller’s occasional drum machine gives it a more timeless and organic feel, albeit with touches of electronic enhancement. Factor in the singing of Poindexter and Asante, of lyrics, rather than the usual group chants—”Silent Days” even features as guest vocalist the India-born soul/jazz singer Bajka—and the music assumes a more universal appeal. Add to that, We Be All Africans is short and sweet, its seven pieces all dispatched in under 38 minutes.
The album was recorded in Philophon’s analogue studio in Berlin, with a standout track “Rhapsody In Berlin” originally issued as a split 7″ on that label in 2015 – the album thankfully has the full, unedited version.
The lead cut, up first, is a vocal-led chant in the spirit of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Our Roots (Began In Africa)”, but unlike Sanders’ cut it’s played in buoyant fast beat style, with Ackamoor framing his terrific solo with gritty, Fela-esque riffs, and Poindexter also taking a brief violin solo that points up the ensemble’s distinctive, multilayered strings sound.
“Epiphany” is slower, with detailed percussion in mid-tempo heads framing passages where Ackamoor’s yearning alto solos over steady electric bass lines. Not too-subtle electronic processing gives everything on this cut an extra, unexpected, spacey dimension.
“Silent Days” is a percussion-led processional focused on Bajka and Asante’s chant on “walking in the galaxy through the universe”. Both lyrically and musically, it’s close in spirit to latter-day Sun Ra Arkestra. Embellishing a melody carried by violin and flute, Ackamoor’s sax sticks close to the core rhythm, as enlivened by Babatunde and Nash.
“Rhapsody In Berlin” is tougher, an insistent, urban Nigerian groove with a distinctly 70s Afro-funk vibe and a dash of Codona’s free jazz/world fusion. As Ackamoor breaks from melodic riffing into a fervent solo, Asante and co ratchet the groove even tighter. The track’s pulse and push up the anti on the art Ensemble’s “Theme DeYoYo“, and the two cuts seem destined to bump up against each other on countless future mixtapes.
“Clarion Call” is much lighter – a stately jazz number in the spirit of Albert Ayler – an impression reinforced with Poindexter echoing violinist Michel Sampson’s part in Ayler’s Greenwich Village group.
Asante leads the brief “Traponga” with a vocal chant, before solo kit drumming evolves into a percussion duet. And that leaves just the concise “Whispering Tenderness” to take the album out with a dreamy sashay, its Poindexter vocal married to a bassline that might be distantly related to “A Love Supreme”.
Ackamoor takes up Poindexter’s lyricism in his last, eloquently concise solo, effectively pointing up how beautifully arranged the whole album is.
It’s much better than I expected it to be – not a studio run-through of The Pyramid’s extrovert live set, but a distillation of selected facets of their current songbook into a collection of distinctive original compositions, with many of the live show’s rough edges smoothed over. It completely upends the impression their live show made on me in 2012, when I wrote that: “enjoyable as (it) was, the Pyramids’ Afro-Psychedelia was a tad too rigid, repetitive and uninspired…fall(ing) some way short of the (stratospheric) benchmark-setting standards of the Art Ensemble or the Arkestra in their pomp.” We Be All Africans transcends those comparisons, and showcases The Pyramids as exemplars of their art.
Idris Ackamoor alto sax; Sandy Poindexter violin, vocals; Kimathi Asante electric bass, vocals; Heshima Mark Williams bass; Kenneth Nash percussion; Babatunde Lea percussion.
The Pyramids at Cafe Oto, 18 Jan 2012.