Idris Ackamoor - Music of Idris Ackamoor 1971-2004 (EM Records 2xCD)
EM Records basically came outta nowhere in the past couple of years to unleash a torrent of previously unavailable recordings from all over the map, quickly establishing themselves as one of the premiere reissue labels in the game for all things left field. All that despite being based in Japan and charging primo bucks for a simple CD reissue ($21-$28 U.S. for a single disc effort!). But at least they make sure you get a heckuva lot of bang for your dollar - not only is the music often excellent but the accompanying liner notes are usually chock full of info (sometimes penned by the artists themselves and sometimes, frustratingly, entirely in Japanese) and rare photos, all wrapped up in a beautyfull-looking jool case. To date they've been responsible for unearthing recordings by the likes of Roland P. Young ("Isophonic Boogie Woogie" - Afro spiritual minimal electronic space music), David Weiss ("Virtuoso Saw" - musical saw recordings), David Rosenboom ("Brainwave Music"), Sam Moore ("Mooohieee!: Musical Saw and Hawaiian Guitar Soli Recorded in Early 1920s"), Moolah ("Woe Ye Demon Possessed" - '74 weirdo out-psych classic) and, in 2005, a record by the Pyramids called "Birth/Speed/Merging". Intrigued by this supposed blend of exotic 70's African/Egypt free jazz, I quickly set about trying to download the album because I'm a 21st century record buyer and I'll be damned if I'm going to spend my hard-earned $21 on an album if I haven't heard it first. Can you imagine (please, note the sarcasm)? So eventually I did obtain it and it was everything I hoped it to be but I waited on ordering it and time passed by and my unintentional patience was rewarded with the news that EM Records were putting together two-disc set devoted to Idris Ackamoor, the brains behind the Pyramids as well as other groups of past and present! I couldn't say no, and within the week I had it ordered and sent off to my house post-haste. I still haven't bought the actual "Birth/Speed/Merging" album for various reasons (more on that later) but it seems to have gone out of print over at EM, probably due in large part to the emergence of this compilation...which doesn't reproduce the entire LP, but enough of it to help you get the gist.
First disc opens with a previously-unreleased 1971 track from Ackamoor's pre-Pyramids group the Collective, featuring Ackamoor on soprano sax, as well as various players on flute, piano, drums and french horn. "The Sheperd's Tune" is an excellent 17-minute excercise in restrained joy with a jubilant piano melody rolled along endlessly, often doubled up by Margaux Simmons (Ackamoor's wife)'s flute. Closest connections would be to Sun Ra's Arkestra obviously but also Don Cherry's ensemble work and also Miles' "Sketches of Spain" and "Bitches Brew", Alan Silva, Pharaoh Sanders and even Albert Ayler. Total trip and an unheralded classic of freEastern gobstopperism, but things get even more out-there with the Pyramids' material that occupies the remainder of the disc. There are two live jam sessions here, both around 11 minutes in length, that showcase the true talent breadth of the musicians down to the wildly energetic solos that, Ackamoor says, would characterize virtually all of the Pyramids' recorded output. The first of those two is "Land of Eternal Song Suite, Part 3", spearheaded by Kimathi Asante's propulsive basslines and Donald Robinson's drumming, speckled entirely throughout by Ackamoor's sax which can get downright furious indeed. The track falls off into a pretty wild percussion/whistle/shouting freak-out the sounds of which the Belgian label Crammed Discs are currently pushing via Konono No. 1, Kasai All-Stars, et al. The recording quality of 1973's "The River Ganges" is a bit poorer but it adds to the subtle otherworld jungle feel of the track, a bit more patient and a bit more Egyptian sounding than "Land" but no less great. "River" is probably the best early demonstration of Ackamoor's horn dominance, particularly during mid-section where he unloads a Brotzmann-caliber assault before jumping just as quickly back to the soothing earth rhythms the rest of the track highlights. The three songs showcased here from 1973's "Lalibela" all possess a strong African slant, particularly the conga/flute lull of the title track. The best of the lot has to be "Ya A Ya A", in which those very syllables are chanted over an ass-shaking Funkadelic-like romp. The final two "Mohgo Naba" and "Queen of the Spirits, Part 3" are both taken from the 1974 album "King of Kings" and are cut from the same cloth, althoug the latter track is most notable for Ackamoor switching to the one-stringed goge in lieu of the saxophone and some heavy ritualistic chanting courtesy Bradie Speller aka Hekaptah. Hypnotic and invigorating.
Nothing, however, compares to the first three tracks of disc two, the first couple of which come from the 1976 opus "Birth/Speed/Merging". The first is the colossal Eastern haze thump of "Aomawa (Birth/Speed Merging Suite Part 1)", the title word which Ackamoor invented, formed a rhythm around, chanted on the album, and then promptly named his daughter after. No matter how it came about, "Aomawa" is practically worth the price of admission alone. The mystical "Birth/Speed/Merging (Birth/Speed/Merging Suite Part 2)" follows, with Ackamoor's shakuhachi and ku chen and Simmons' flute coming together as the centrifugal force holding the entire piece in place. "Black Man of the Nile" is a slightly extended live take from '72 of a track that would eventually find place on the "Birth/Speed/Merging" album itself, under the name "Black Man and Woman of the Nile". The two tracks are quite different though, with the version here taking lots of time and space to stretch and lead into a firestorm of brass hail from Ackamoor, although it also shows off his "bamboophone" skills, an instrument Ackamoor created as a cross between, well, a long stick of bamboo and the mouthpiece of a saxophone. I have to say I prefer the later version to this one, as it just sounds much more tighter and better composed in comparison. Another song from the Pyramids era is included, although it is simply Idris Ackamoor on alto sax, Margaux Simmons on flute, and the Kings Drummers on talking drums and bass drums - nice and still more Konono than the other pieces, but not much more than a curious throw-in. The Idris Ackamoor Quartet song "Spiritual Rebirth" from 1978 is a turning point in Ackamoor's career, where he made a conscious decision to learn more of the traditional jazz repertoire, and also where I slightly lose interest - "Spiritual Rebirth" as well as the 1997 track "Topanga" are both excellent, smooth, and soulful jazz compositions reminiscent (to me) of Dizzy and Bird bebop but lack the raw sense of adventure embedded in his 70's work (I guess we all gotta grow up sometime right?). Same can be said for the two tracks from Ackamoor's current Ensemble, taken from 2000 and 2004 albums respectively. Astutely performed, but not entirely my bag (or, at least, not as much my bag as his early works).
All told, Ackamoor is a brilliant composer, bandleader and musician and deserves to be thrust into the spotlight and not relegated to outsider/obscurity jazz status. Praise be to both this album and EM Records for putting it out there in lavish manner, from the 36-page booklet down to the unusual oversized CD case the discs come packaged in. $29 is still a lot of money but I personally guarantee you'll get every penny's worth and more from this collection. I've heard that this year promises a Pyramids box set on the Locust imprint Ikef, probably compiling the three Pyramids albums, so maybe it's worth holding onto your dough until we see what that's all about...although I highly doubt it'll have the alternate Pyramids recordings as well as Ackamoor pre- and post-Pyramids outfits featured, which still makes this one a worthy investment and an absolute treasure to own.