Keeping Spiritual and Psychedelic Jazz Alive

Written by | Concerts, News

Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, previously known as simply The Pyramids are a spiritual and psychedelic jazz collective, which originated in Ohio, in the early 70s, yet officially came together in Paris. By the mid-70s, after extraordinary travels and performances in Europe and Africa, you could say that they had come and gone—they disbanded in 1977 after relocating to San Francisco, but about a decade ago, they reunited and appear to be more active in Europe than they are in the United States.

They are coming back to Europe this November to tour their new release “We Be All Africans” on Strut Records. The album was recorded in Berlin in collaboration with producer Max Weissenfeldt, using his Philophon analogue studio. The group has also made some more recent adjustments in the formation.

Alto saxophonist Idris Ackamoor (born in 1951) is the only original member actively now keeping the spirit going. The other two original-core members, Margo Simmons (flautist) and Kimathi Asante (bassist) met Ackamoor at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As young radical students, they shared a passion for the rising free jazz scene of that era, and they came together under the tutelage of the avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and his 40-member Black Music Ensemble in 1971.

In 1972, Ackamoor, Simmons, and Asante went to Europe as cultural exchange students, where they soon met the drummer Donald Robinson, in Paris.  Robinson was already living there, and playing with the fellow American free jazz saxophonist Frank Wright, and so with his addition, The Pyramids were formed – their name was inspired by the most symbolic monuments of African and Egyptian culture.

Their influences were the spiritual and avant-garde jazz greats, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, John and Alice Coltrane, and of course, Cecil Taylor, the earliest mentor of the original core members. But there were also psychedelic rock influences like Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and the West Coast jazz saxophonist who first merged the two–Charles Lloyd.

The formative months of The Pyramids were spent in Amsterdam, absorbing the alternative cultural capitol’s attractions, but eventually they moved on to Africa, first to Morocco and eventually ending up in a commune outside Accra, Ghana. From there, they traveled throughout Africa, collecting instruments like the bailophone (African thumb piano) in Ghana or the Uganda harp in Kenya, and playing with ethnic African musicians to hone their own non-traditional and ultimately cosmic sound.

The Pyramids were so inspired by Lalibela (in Ethiopia), that they named their first album after that sacred site. Cecil Taylor had told them about Lalibela in one of his classes on “Music and the Black Aesthetic, explaining that it was a holy site and a place of great reverence. So, they went there too.

In 1973, the Pyramids ended their first European-African “tour,” returning back home with their own experimental Pan-African sound, influenced by avant-garde jazz and psychedelia. Equally important to their sound, was their live performance, inspired by African rituals with body-paints and costumes.

Three albums were released over the next few years, and their performances were well received at Antioch. After the group relocated to Oakland, California, their popularity rose, however, by 1977, the group disbanded, only to be reunited in May 2007, for the San Francisco International Art Festival.

For their 2016 tour, along with Idris Ackamoor there will be two long-time newer members, including the violinist Sandy Poindexter, and the drummer Baratunde, with still newer and much younger players.

“I’m creating a repertory company so we can play anytime,” says Ackamoor. “And Margo or Kimathi can return anytime. Kimathi is still active, but only on the record, not the tour—so the repertory company let’s us materialize our activities, like this tour to Europe for the new release.”

“It is an interesting new group. We have a San Francisco sound with a multicultural base. There’s a new connection to Latin America and Cuba. It is new for us, though we’re still rooted in Africa,” he says.

“And there is also still the old influences, from Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Santana to Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble, and Fela Kuti” he says.

It is important not to overlook previous African and jazz music convergences, especially the African High Life sessions for Blue Note in 1963 with Solomon Ilori, the Nigerian drummer with his Afro-drum ensemble featuring African and American jazz players like Hosea Taylor on saxophone and flute. A later session, in 1964, with saxophonist and flutist Herbert Laws, trumpeter Donald Byrd, drummer Elvin Jones and others is lesser on African high-life, yet deeper into sublime modern jazz and Africa.

While Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids may eventually consider connecting back to this as well. Some tracks on the new album, like the irrepressible afro-funk groove “Rhapsody in Berlin Parts 1 & 2” and the breezy “Epiphany” are the most accomplished songs sans avant-garde affect ever by the group.

“I’ve matured as a composer and I am doing a lot more of my music with the band,” he explains. “But I still come from the avant-garde branch of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. I’m from that branch of improvisation, expanding the palette of jazz and African music. And of course, I pay homage to Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and others but we are still cosmic. We have a psychedelic sound.”

“I picked up the avant-garde with Cecil Taylor. He was my departure linking avant-garde with living in Africa for a year, and then connecting this to the avant-garde gave us our unique sound. So we are very much into the spiritual connection of the music, like John and Alice Coltrane or Pharoah’s ‘The Creator has a Master Plan.’ This is like the music in Africa. The music is never separated from the spirit,” says Idris Ackamoor.


November 4—Worldstock Festival, Paris, France

November 5—Südpol, Luzern, Switzerland

November 6—Kaschemme, Basel, Switzerland

November 7—Grandhotel, Augsburg, Germany

November 8—Jazz Dock, Prague, Czech Republic

November 9—Ancienne Belgique, Brussels, Belgium

November 11—Le Guess Who?, Utrecht, Netherlands

November 12—Überjazz, Hamburg, Germany

November 13—Fasching, Stockholm, Sweden

November 18—Prince Charles, Berlin, Germany

November 19– Café OTO, London, England

November 20– Café OTO, London, England

November 24—Mousonturm, Frankfurt, Germany

November 25—Mousonturm, Frankfurt, Germany


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Last modified: July 15, 2018