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On the Road With Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids

On the Road With Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids

Courtesy Sophie Valentin

Gioele Pagliaccia BY

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The first time I met Idris Ackamoor was inside of Centro Stabile di Cultura on a Sunday afternoon in November 2018. The organizers at this historical venue in San Vito di Leguzzano, a small village half hour from Vicenza surrounded by foundries and wheat fields, asked me if I could lend my Ludwig Drums to the drummer playing in The Pyramids at the time; as a reward I would watch the show for free and get to meet the band. I quickly loaded all the gear into the car and drove to the venue, which is literally seven minutes from my house.

After the show that evening I realized that it had been years since I had that much fun at a concert. The band was playing and singing some of the deepest music ever, while "we" the audience were dancing ecstatically and smiling the whole way through. It had such an impact on me that the next day I wrote Idris to tell him about it.

It might have been some astral alignment, serendipity, positive karma or maybe just sheer luck, but shortly after I sent that email Idris got back to me saying he was changing the line-up of the band and needed a new drummer for the next tour. At first I couldn't actually believe it, but then it all started to make sense; I was already a big fan of Strut Records, the label the band records for, plus that whole year I had been practicing afro-beat patterns both on drums and guitar to deepen my knowledge of african music and to take a break from the "jazz phase" I had just gone through. After some research I found out that the album they were promoting at the time "An Angel Fell" had been recorded by one of my favourite drummers and producers, Malcom Catto of The Heliocentrics.

I also learned that in the early '70s Idris was taken under the wing of one of the greatest pianist, improviser and composer of all time, Cecil Taylor whom I loved since I was a teenager. He had also been a member of Cecil's "Black Music Ensemble" and had his benediction to go to Africa with (Idris's wife at the time) Margaux Simmons, plus a reel to reel recorder to document and study music with original tribe members from Ghana and Kenya.

As if it was not enough Ackamoor played and studied extensively with Charles Tyler, the amazing alto player that is on the 1965 Albert Ayler album Bells and was also into theatre, acting and much more.

For me it was like a dream too good to be true, but when I met the band in Prague almost one year later I realized that it was all real. The new line up consisted of an original Pyramid dating back to 1973, Margaux Simmons on flutes, violinist Sandra Poindexter (who also played with Charles Mingus legendary saxophonist John Handy for more than fifteen years), bay area guitarist and long time friend of Idris,

Robert Cobb, bassist Rubèn Ramos Medina from Panama and percussionist Jack Yglesias also member of The Heliocentrics and collaborator of master musicians such as Orlando Julius, Lloyd Miller and the father of Ethio-Jazz, Mulatu Astatke. Right from the start everyone was very friendly and made me feel welcomed, something that is incredibly valuable when you have to be with each other 24 hours a day for months at a time, often sleep deprived and with your whole life in a small suitcase. We rehearsed for two days going over the structures of the songs and getting to know each other both musically and personally. Like in every team or family the members not always get along with each other, but in this case for some reason it all worked out from the beginning and it definitely made the subsequent two months much easier than they could have been.

The first leg of the tour started in Czech Republic playing evening shows in different cities as well as a couple morning shows as "Jazz Messengers!," introducing middle school and high school kids to the great jazz tradition, playing standards such as "When The Saints Come Marching In" and "Half Nelson" with intermissions by Idris as "Shoehorn Sims" tap dancing and singing his way through the audience, making everyone have a super fun time, teachers included.

We then continued our travels to Sweden, Denmark and Turkey: this last one was a country that the band never visited before and we were all super excited to go there. I would like to point out that going to Istanbul for a drummer is like going to Disneyland for a kid. Drum cymbals were actually invented by the turks during the ottoman empire and the best ones are still made there, using ancient techniques and secret recipes they will not reveal of course. Me and Jack Yglesias walked around the markets, entering the small shops where people like Elvin Jones and Art Blakey bought some of the cymbals you can still hear on those Blue Note records from the '60s and '70s. The show we played that night was as magical as the audience that came to the event, so warm and opened minded contrary to some popular belief, and some of them even knew the lyrics to The Pyramids songs, making us feel like we were at the meeting point between east and west.

During these initial two weeks I noticed that the venues where we performed were often packed with people of different ages, races, social and musical backgrounds, but the music we played brought them all together celebrating life through dancing and singing in unison, something that human beings have been doing since the beginning of time. Meanwhile we as a band were getting tighter and more confident day by day; certainly having a fearless improviser and experienced band leader like Ackamoor helped immensely in this process.

After we played the last couple of gigs in Belgium I returned to my home in Schio and slept for a couple of days straight. I continued giving drum lessons, spent time with family and friends and even played a solo percussion show in Milan while the rest of the band was in England rehearsing and relaxing a bit after such an intense touring schedule. Later on into the tour guitarist Bobby Cobb told me that in those couple of weeks, beside rehearsing the new tuneshim, Idris, Margaux and Sandra had a chance to go and say hi to their friend Marshall Allen whom was playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Jazz Cafè. That's what I call a good night out!

Next time I saw Idris and the band was on October 25th in Huesca, a beautiful sunny city in the northeastern part of Spain, where every year they have a really cool music festival called Periferias Fest; we had the day off so we walked around the center and ate some of the best seafood one can imagine. Next day we played in a huge auditorium filled with people and before the show we met Nadah El Shazly and her band, whom we would meet again the next day in Madrid inside one of the cities most iconic places, Palacio de Cibeles where we played for its 100th anniversary. We departed the next day to go record the new album SHAMAN!

The walls inside Malcom Catto's studio in London are covered with all kinds of posters and the rooms are filled with vintage microphones, amps, percussions, an amazing old school mixing board and all kinds of musical toys that would turn any musician into a three year old inside the sandbox. I then suddenly realized that I was about to record in the same room that was used to create what in my opinion are modern masterpieces, plus the drums I was gonna play were the ones used to record those same albums: finally I knew what they looked like although to this day neither me or Malcom know what brand they are.

We spent about a week laying down the basic tracks of the tunes Idris wrote for the new record (the 7th as Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids since 1973) plus a couple of "forgotten songs" he remembered about three weeks earlier in the backstage of the club in Istanbul. We recorded one or two takes for each of the tunes except for a couple of tracks wich were a bit harder to lay down, but thanks to the knowledge and wisdom of Idris and Malcom we pulled it of just fine.

Sandra, Idris, Margaux and Bobby did the vocals and some overdubs for a couple of days then we packed all the instruments and continued the tour across Europe. Next stop was at one of the biggest festivals in Europe, "Le Guess Who?" in Utrecht, Netherlands. We played two shows that day: one of them was out in the open with jugglers, clowns and fire eaters running around, but it was so cold that for once I felt lucky being a drummer, being able to move and sweat like drummers do. The second show was inside a big auditorium and the crowd went totally crazy that night; seeing all those people coming to see a band that pretty much disappeared for more than 30 years (except of course for the music aficionados who bought their out of print records on ebay for hundreds of dollars) was incredible to witness. What was even more incredible was to see how much love, passion and energy Idris, Margaux, Sandra and Bobby still had even though they are all in their late '60s and had been touring and recording for at least a month straight! For me this was the proof that music and the love for it, will keep one young and healthy forever.

We continued our trip to Glasgow and as we were getting closer to the Hotel the promoter decided to take a different route, because the conservative political party was manifesting and things could get out of control fast, as they did the week before. Nonetheless that night we played inside a big theatre and the scottish crowd was outstanding, dancing and having fun like few other audiences I've seen in my life. Next was London where a bunch of friends, colleagues and fans came to yet another sold out concert, to hear the new tunes we recorded the week before in the studio. Idris said that London is very close to him & The Pyramids and that night I definitely felt what he was talking about.

Some of you already know that before every Pyramid show Idris leads the band from the dressing rooms to where the audience is, playing anything from a didgeridoo to shakers, hand percussion and other shamanic instruments as a starting ritual to thank The Ancestors and also to empower both the band and the crowd. While continuing our journey, as we travelled across Germany, I was surprised to see how the audiences that usually are considered "boring" or "cold" were so supportive and warm during these pre-show rituals, especially in Berlin; although as we all know Berlin is not Germany!

Our last stop was Paris. It was my first time there and it felt exactly how I imagined it: a mixture of history, delicious food, old school anarchism and overall fanciness. We were by then very tired but after all we had been travelling and playing almost every night for two months! The show took place in a smaller hall where people usually eat Pizza (I'm Italian but the Pizza was amazing in France!) to later get a drink and enjoy the concerts, dancing and participating like only french do. As I said before we were very tired by then, but also aware that in those two months of playing together we achieved something exceptional: the consistency in delivering value night after night and working together towards the common goal of healing ourselves and others through the force of music and dance combined as a single powerful medicine.

That's why human beings started playing music in the first place: before the magazines, the poster boys, the millions of views on YouTube and the private jets, we used music for healing from all kinds of fears, worries, emotional and even physical pain. Once we are not distracted by all of those other superficial factors, we can still tap into the infinite powers of sound and movement; just like Albert Ayler and Mary Maria Parks said back in 1970 "Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe" and that's the great message I got from Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, something that I'll keep spreading around as long as I live.

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