Songs We Love: Idris Ackamoor And The Pyramids, 'Rhapsody In Berlin'

May 4, 2016

This song is called "Rhapsody In Berlin," and it was recorded in the German city recently. But Berlin isn't exactly the geography that comes to mind. It's more like a Central African nightclub, with layered instrumental funk interjected by yelps and whistles similar to Hindewhu Pygmy music. Or downtown Manhattan or Chicago's South Side in the late '60s and early '70s, where free-improvising saxophones met electronics and rock music and Sly Stone amid the urgency of the civil rights struggle. Even the record's mastering — a touch imprecise and muddy, possibly as a deliberate decision — suggests limited edition, DIY, cratediggers' special vinyl.

Perhaps that's a cheater's reading, knowing what we do of the crew behind it. Led by alto saxophonist Idris Ackamoor, The Pyramids were formed in a small liberal arts college — but one that employed the preeminent improvising pianist Cecil Taylor, and also one that sent them off to Europe and across Africa on a senior-year study abroad project. Their project was their band, and when they returned, their performances were full of new instruments, chants, costumes, polyrhythms and stage rituals. The group moved to San Francisco in the psychedelic '70s, cut three private-press LPs and disbanded for three decades — enough time for obscurity to become legend.

When Ackamoor and the band reunited in 2007, the feelings were positive, and tours and new recordings followed. Turns out that there remains substantial hunger for their brand of "cosmic jazz" — to employ a catchall taxonomy to the Afro-centric, often experimental and often rhythm-drenched music. (To wit: The most-talked-about jazz record of 2015 was a maximalist, orchestral, three-CD collection by a Coltrane-esque saxophonist whose cover art saw him standing in a dashiki in front of celestial bodies and nebulae.) And now The Pyramids are set to release a new album later this month called We Be All Africans.

That brings us back to this track, released as a 7" last year and included as a fuller cut here. You don't need a map to get through it — there's a repeated sax riff, a bleating solo, the sax riff again. But what it lacks in development it certainly makes up for in enthusiasm. It's an ecstatic and extended dance party, with throwback vibes and multiculti merger. Maybe, in that way, the location of Berlin makes sense, too.

We Be All Africans is out May 27 on Strut Records.

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