(c) Alexis Maryon
Saxophonist, composer, actor, and tap dancer, Idris Ackamoor is the founder of The Pyramids in 1972, resurrected ten years ago. Since 2010 the band has toured throughout the world with original members and a line-up of new players. As for this brand new album, ‘An Angel Fell’ produced by Malcolm Catto and recorded during an intense week at Quatermass studios in London. Time to go back to the complete story of this under known master.
In Land of Ra we can see a tribute to Sun Ra. Did you know him? What was his influence?
The original name of the composition was “Land of Jah” as a tribute to the beautiful Island of Jamaica. I changed it when I updated the composition adding lyrics and a new reference to “Land of Ra” referencing a double meaning to the Egyptian Ra, god of the sun, as well as a tribute to Sun Ra. I did not know Sun Ra personally but I always was inspired by his music and theatrical stage performances. He is still one of my favorite composers and performers. Equally, I have always loved Marshall Allen’s and John Gilmore’s playing.
Cecil Taylor was also a mentor, who was looking for other ways. What was your relationship with him?
Cecil was one of my major influences musically and philosophically and one of my greatest teachers along with my principle mentor, historic clarinet and reed master Andrew Cyrille (who had played with Jelly Roll Morton and Freddie Keppard in the 1920s), and the late alto saxophonist Charles Tyler. I was a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and studying in the music department. One of my music professors, named John Ronsheim, wrote a large grant to bring Cecil Taylor and his group including the late Jimmy Lyons on alto, Andrew Cyrille on drums, dancer Ken Miller, percussionist Cliff Sykes, and poet James Thompson. Professor Ronsheim decided to give me a work-study job to help prepare the way for Cecil and his ensemble to come to Antioch. During Cecil’s stay he taught classes and conducted the Cecil Taylor Black Music Ensemble. I took Cecil’s classes and was a member of the Ensemble playing alto saxophone in the alto section, along with Jemeel Moondoc and Bobby Zankle, both of who are major innovators in the jazz world now.
Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor have been classified in free jazz, yet their music is often different in their intentions. What do you think of this word, free jazz? A paradoxical jail or a radical opening?
I don’t and never have used the word «free jazz». If someone wants to use that word to describe a certain genre of jazz I don’t really have a problem with it. I am not much into slogans, or types. I understand the need for marketing purposes to have a name to attempt to identify a category of music. However, I must quote one of the masters of African American music, Duke Ellington, who said, «There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.»
You toured in Africa during the 70’s… What did you find, discovered?
I found my true self! Africa was a spiritual and revelational journey and adventure for me. I will never forget it and it will always be a part of one of my greatest experiences and influences beyond all others. I took a musical and spiritual journey to Northern Ghana traveling to Tamale and Bolgatanga, Ghana. It lasted about two weeks and during that time I played with the Dagomba people of Tamale who introduced me to playing with the King’s drummers. I also journeyed to Bolgatanga and participated in several magical musical rituals and ceremonies including performing at the Second Burial of a Fra Fra King, as well as, undertaking a healing ritual in the African bush with a Shaman who performed the «ritual of the washing of the legs». I collected many instruments and also became a percussionist playing a variety of instruments including talking drums, balafons, and a variety of flutes.
When you were going back, you had recorded three Afro-jazz albums, “c” in 1973, “King of Kings” in 1974 and “Birth / Speed / Merging” in 1976 on independent labels. Why this choice of independence ?
I wanted a way to get the music of The Pyramids out to a wider audience. In America it was the time of crossover music and rock and roll, and this was the type of music that was being played on the radio as well as recorded by record companies. They were not recording the music of Cecil Taylor or The Pyramids. Cecil was already beginning to self-produce and distribute his music while he was at Antioch College. Sun Ra was also continuing to self-produce and distribute his music. It was a natural development for me to be inspired by these innovative and independent musicians who also wanted to take control of their own musical destiny. The Pyramids were some of the first DIY musicians to take control of their music and fiercely independent!
The first Pyramids LP’s from the 70’s are now strong collector’s pieces. Haw many of each of them have been printed at the time
We printed 1000 copies of ‘Lalibela’ and ‘King of ’ and 5000 copies of ‘Birth/Speed/’. Many of the Birth/Speed/Merging LPs we’re unfortunately lost during a move.
You have a special link with France since this is where your band, The Pyramids, was born. Tell us more about this episode?
I wrote a proposal to the Antioch College Abroad Program to leave America with three Antioch students (my ex-wife flutist Margo Simmons, and electric bassist Kimathi Asante) and travel to Europe and form a band and work. The college agreed to send us with the condition that we had to at least spend some time at a university for several months. Once we did this we would be on our own to form a band and attempt to find work as professional musicians. We selected the University of Besançon and we took 6 weeks of Intensive French. We arrived in this idyllic small city in the French countryside and began our year abroad! While we were at the University we each stayed in three different dormitories that were shaped a lot like a pyramid. Hence the name! Following the six week language program we were speaking French pretty good, but when we left after the end of the intensive we went to Paris and then to Amsterdam. While in Paris we were introduced to musicians like tenor saxophonist Frank Wright and we also met a young drummer our age named Donald Robinson. He became the first drummer with The Pyramids and followed us to Amsterdam and months later to Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Ayler’s and Pharoah’s messages (‘Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe’, ‘Love Is Everywhere,’ …), are spiritual jazz essence. Do people need now more than ever music with a message?
I have always believed that musicians are spiritual messengers! Just like the ancient griots of Africa musicians are the repository of the collective cultural memories of a people. Whether it is John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ as a homage to the four black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham, or Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s The Time’, the powerful music of Bob Marley or Fela Kuti, or ‘Soliloquy For Michael Brown’ from my album. These are the compositions and the musicians I most admire and listen to. Musicians who are not afraid to compose and play music with a positive message. I also loved the freedom and uncompromising music of early Albert Ayler whose very style and intensity sends its own kind of spiritual and political message! I was fortunate enough to study and play with Albert’s cousin and alto player, Charles Tyler.
Nsorama from King of Kings
We are witnessing a revival of spiritual jazz, also known as cosmic jazz, whose values you carry. What could be your definition of this music?
I can only define my music. As I mentioned before I understand the need to use words to categorize and market music. However, I am an Artistic Being! The music I play is cosmic in that it is expansive and encompasses the past, present and future of the Omniverse! I also live in San Francisco! In the early 70’s the city was the epicenter for mind altering drugs, flower power, and freedom. I love the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone and Santana. But equally I grew up in Chicago. The home of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I loved Martha and the Vandellas. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. And of course The Impressions. Then I was birthed into John Coltrane, nurtured by Cecil Taylor, destroyed and reinvented by Albert Ayler and the album “Bells”. Altoist Charles Tyler passed a message on to me I will never forget! Clifford King was truly «The King»! He taught me to play dogs and cats, lightning and rain, and invent my life. I mention all of the above because they are the aggregate of cosmic music…music of the Omniverse!
Your were a tap dancer, you had worked with Bill T. Jones, great choregrapher… What is your relationship to dance? Do you think music is a «body and soul» affair?
Yes, I am a tap dancer. Or more appropriately, a «hoofer». Legendary hoofer, the late Al Robinson, was my mentor and teacher. He taught me to tell stories with my feet. I am one of the repositories of amazingly complex and sublime «Al Robinson» steps. I also studied with the master Steve Condos. I also number Bill T. Jones as a friend and collaborator. His creativity and intellect is of the highest form. I danced a duet with Bill in the Cultural Odyssey production, “Perfect Courage”. Music is a «body and soul affair». I seek to be a very physical saxophonist with the stance of a basketball player at the free throw line. Breath to me is the most important aspect of my playing. I play like i’m swimming. Breathing deep, relaxed, but intense!
In your new album you talk about global apocalypse, climate change and the healing power of music. Why this title : An Angel Fell? A subliminal message?
Everyone who listens to the music and lyrics of “An Angel Fell” will have their own story to tell. It is my phantasmagoric journey just below the service of awareness. Something I dreamed or thought I dreamed but in fact it was a reality. A love story. A story of loss and recovery. A story of memory, minds, bodies, and spirits crossing time… falling through space. What’s your story?
When we see the coming to power of many nationalists, including Donald Trump in the USA, but also in India, Japan or Europe, are you pessimistic about the future of the planet?
I don’t have a pessimistic bone in my body! I embrace the positive and hope abounds. I’m from a people who were taken as slaves and who triumphed against all odds! My mother was one of those golden warriors. I saw my father (who is now 96 years old) stand up fearless looking into the barrel of a gun held by a white man. I was there as a teenager helping him as a janitor in the sixties. So, no I am not pessimistic about the future of the planet. I have seen real live angels in my life… they are everywhere… in the prisons, on the playgrounds, next door…
What are the main dangers for the next years ?
Indifference! Listen to the album.
The political commitment was very strong in the 70’s, and again there is a movement of more militant musicians. Do you believe that music is the weapon of the future, as Fela said?
A friend of mine said, «Musicians are the ambassadors of the soul». I believe this. For me weapons and music are diametrically opposed! Try to live one day without music in your life! Music is omnipresent! The eyes are the windows into the soul and the ears are the black hole into space. Music is change and change is music! See the clouds part with the sun. It’s a new start everyone!
“Tinoge” is co-written with Max Weissenfeldt and a few others. Are you surprised by this new generation, who often knows history better than many jazz specialists?
There are many of the new generation who respect what came before but are not anchored to it. I find it exciting when genres are broken down and barriers come tumbling down! Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down! Musicians young and old have to speak with one voice, blow with one horn to tumble down walls of hatred, disrespect, and division.
How did you work with Malcolm Catto? What did he bring you?
Malcolm gave 100% to the recording! He has such large ears and the ability to help guide and produce a recording session in a respectful and mutually supportive manner. The more we worked together the better we understood each other. I found him to be very nurturing of my compositional needs and vision for the album which was worked out in my waking dreams for many years.
Are you going to perform on stage with Heliocentrics?
I am ready anytime!!!! And would love it!
Check the complete new record on Strut website