California-based tenor saxophonist and composer Idris Ackamoor
, who has one foot in magical realism and the other in the politicised school of spiritual-jazz, relaunched his 1970s band the Pyramids in 2015. A year later, the group released the acclaimed We Be All Africans
, which was followed in 2018 by the equally noteworthy An Angel Fell
(both on Strut). Shaman!
is the revived Pyramids' third winner in a row. It is also the most ambitious album in Ackamoor's six-decade recording career: a 75 minute, four-part suite which is brilliantly realised by an electro-acoustic septet and recorded with a minimum of overdubbing other than the chorale vocals which augment around half of the tracks. It is epic on a scale only hinted at by the younger West Coast spiritual-jazz tenor saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington
on his enjoyable but overrated The Epic
(Brainfeeder, 2015), despite Washington being aided by a cast of thousands and a 3xCD format.
Ackamoor's stylistic territory and vocalised tenor saxophone inevitably draw comparisons with his near contemporary, Pharoah Sanders
, and a comparator to Shaman!
is Sanders' chef d'oeuvre, Tauhid
(Impulse!, 1967), in which Sonny Sharrock
's guitar vamps work in similar fashion to Bobby Cobb
's here in the Pyramids. But there are differences. At times, Ackamoor plays with a burnished, caressing tone which goes right back to Ben Webster
. Ackamoor's tunes and arrangements also focus more on the backbeat than Sanders' ever have, and the Pyramids' lineup, in which Ackamoor shares the frontline with violinist Sandra Poindexter
and flautist Margaux Simmons
(a 2019 returnee from the original Pyramids), has its own close-harmony character. Additionally, Ackamoor's (sparing) use of a Keytar adds electric keyboard textures which Sanders' music has rarely employed. And every now and again, the production evokes the lush soundscapes created by producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff on their Philadelphia International releases during the 1970s.
"I wanted to use this album to touch on some of the issues that we all face as individuals in the inner space of our souls and our conscience," says Ackamoor, differentiating it from his long maintained, community-focused work. "The album unfolds with personal musical statements about love and loss, mortality, the afterlife, family and salvation." That said, penultimate track "The Last Slave Ship" returns to more familiar terrain. The tweaked lyric trajectory resonates with 2020 health concerns but predates them. Tracks such as "When Will I See You Again?" were prompted by the passing in 2018 and 2019 of some of Ackamoor's friends, including his mentor Cecil Taylor
, to whom "Theme For Cecil" is dedicated.
Like An Angel Fell
in 2018, Shaman!
was recorded in London, and the production, by Malcolm Catto, the drummer with and producer of Britain's Sun Ra, Ethio-jazz and dub-focused band the Heliocentrics, is once again straightforward and unobtrusive. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Act 1: Shaman; Tango Of Love; Act 2: Eternity; When Will I See You Again?; Act 3: Salvation; Theme For Cecil; Act 4: Virgin; The Last Slave Ship; Dogon Mysteries.
Idis Ackamoor: tenor saxophone, Keytar, vocals; Sandra Poindexter: violin, vocals; Margaux Simmons: flute, alto flute, vocals; Bobby Cobb: electric guitar, mbira; Ruben Ramos Medina: electric bass; Jack Yglesias: congas; Gioele Pagliaccia: drums.