The first thing that strikes me about Shaman! is that it doesn’t sound like a new record. In fact, I thought I was listening to a reissue until I read the press release from Strut. It’s like the band have distilled the sound of the early 70s and somehow captured an atmosphere and aura of that period. I’m only too keen to lap up this stuff. It’s got to be in part due to the talents of Malcolm Catto who recorded the album at Quatermass Sound Lab. By using recording and mixing equipment that was state of the art in 1974 or thereabouts he’s created an authentic sound which gives this definitely new album a continuity with spiritual jazz releases of the 70s.
Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Ackamoor originally founded the Pyramids at Antioch College, Ohio in the early 70s as part of Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble, a track on this release has been dedicated to Taylor. Lalibela, The Pyramids’ first album was self-released in 1973 followed by King of Kings in 1974 and Birth/ Speed/ Merging in 1976. The albums were sold in relatively small numbers at the band’s live shows. The Pyramids split in 1977.
The world had to wait almost 40 years for a rejuvenation of the band which finally came in 2015. Shaman! is the third Pyramids release on Strut following We Be Africans in 2016 and An Angel Fell from 2018. Ackamoor’s mood he says is introspective on this release, touching on “some of the issues we face as individuals in the inner space of our souls and conscience”.
The record is considerably more polished than the Pyramids 70s releases and not so far into the realms of space jazz, sounding of that era but looking back very much through a contemporary lens, presenting the past in a reimagined way. Maybe giving the Pyramids a chance to make the record they could have made had they chosen a different route on their earlier journey. The personnel for this incarnation of the band are Ackamoor (alto and tenor sax, keytar, vocals), Dr Margaux Simmons (flutes and vocals) Sandra Poindexter (violin and vocals) Bobby Cobb (guitar, mbira, effects and vocals) Ruben Ramon Ramos (acoustic and electric bass) Guile Pagliaccia (drums) Jack Yglesias (congas, percussion).
The album covers plenty of ground in its almost 89 minutes and is split into four acts. The first song ‘Shaman!’ sets off with guitar and a vocalisation reminiscent of the Blackbirds before Ackamoor comes in with his own distinct style, the thing then moves into an Afro-beat groove with a Pharoah Sanders infused sax and wonderful violin from Poindexter.
‘When will I see you again?’ asks one of the albums most memorable tunes, a list of murderous shootings, some notorious US high school incidents others terrorism-related. ‘Freak Storm comes, you better hide, you better run’ Ackamoor sings with urgency. ‘A hole opens in your heart when too soon a loved one departs’. As our minds are now preoccupied with the Covid-19 freak storm the song gains another layer of resonance.
‘Theme for Cecil’, features a heavy and funky electric bass and guitar theme and introduces some fine sax work from Ackamoor. The absence of a keyboard on the album apart from the sporadically featured keytar becomes suddenly noticeable here but perhaps Cecil Taylor, who mentored Ackamoor is represented in the rhythms of the music instead, absent but not forgotten.
‘The Last Slave Ship’ forms the first part of the final act, ‘400 years of the Clotilda’ it riffs on the theme of the final known slave ship to land its illegal human cargo at Mobile Bay, the Gulf of Mexico in 1859. The end of the final act comes with the ‘Dogon Mysteries’ it’s a take on the flavours of Mali with a fabulous Ali Farka Torré style guitar theme.
This ambitious and very listenable record comes in a sleeve adorned by the work of Japanese artist Tokio Aoyama who paints in a style akin to Mari Klarwwein’s Bitches Brew illustration. His striking imagery perfectly compliments the music of the Pyramids.