Time travelers

Pub date August 12, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

"I thought it would be funny to do a total stereo split, as if the past and the present were trying to have a conversation with each other," says Scott Ryser, describing "East West," a track on the compilation History of the Units: The Early Years, 1977-1983 (Community Library). "I like the idea that these radically different sounds can share a ‘present’ time together."

That idea is the motivation behind this article’s collection of short profiles. Recently singled out for a rave by Pitchfork, Ryser’s synth-punk group the Units is one of four innovative or fierce Bay Area musical forces currently experiencing a contemporary renaissance. Sugar Pie DeSanto’s soul, the Pyramids’ free jazz, and San Francisco Express’s fusion have also inspired reissues or archival compilations. The message is loud and clear: old is new and radical in this era of free-floating sound. (Johnny Ray Huston)

SUGAR PIE DESANTO It’s no surprise that New Yorkers called Sugar Pie DeSanto the female James Brown. Like a woman possessed, she pantomimed her petite frame across the stage almost comedically, gyrating to the doo-wop, soul, and R&B that dominated Chicago’s famed Chess record label. In fact, De Santo sang with Soul Brother No. 1 in the early 1960s, and her presence made a competitive impression upon the hardest-working man in showbiz. "James was cool with Sugar," De Santo says over the phone, her voice husky and distinctive. "He was a fanatic about his music."

Now in her 70s, the San Francisco-born Oakland resident has seen much during her 57 years in the music industry. DeSanto’s list of contemporaries includes Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James. She may not perform live quite as often as she once did, but she’s as risqué now as ever. The new compilation Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 (Ace/Kent) is a great starting point if you aren’t familiar with her work. The package includes a dynamic photo of her scissor-locking an unassuming Londoner with her thighs during a performance. Lyrically, "Use What You Got" deals with notions of natural beauty, superficiality and what it was like to grow up African American and Filipino in SF’s Fillmore District. "There was a lot of jealousy," DeSanto remembers. "I had long Filipino hair. It [being multi-racial] wasn’t as common or as easy as it is today. Girls would talk crap in the neighborhood."

With 100 original songs under her belt, DeSanto still receives residuals for compositions penned for Fontella Bass and Minnie Ripperton. A producer at Chess heard a similarity between DeSanto and James, and a few of their subsequent duets are included on Go Go Power. "We recorded in the studio together [in Chicago]," says DeSanto. "We didn’t go on the road together." Today, the Queen of the West Coast Blues likes to ride her bike. She’s looking forward to performing at Oakland’s Jack London Square on September 12th. (Andre Torrez)

THE PYRAMIDS Bad seeds can accidentally generate something good — you can thank an exploitative imposter for contributing to a new surge of interest in the free jazz of the Pyramids. According to the group’s Idris Ackamoor, "someone masquerading as a Pyramid" gave the blessing for the respected Japanese label EM to reissue the group’s 1976 album Birth Speed Merging on CD. Shortly after Ackamoor discovered this ruse, EM embarked on a more expansive — and legit — collection of his music, Music of Idris Ackamoor, 1971-2004. Now, Birth Speed Merging and two earlier Pyramids albums — 1973’s Lalibela and 1974’s King of Kings — are alive again on vinyl, thanks in part to Dawson Prater’s Ikef label.

"I’ve lost a lot of things in my life, but for all these years, I’ve managed to hold on to all of the masters of the Pyramids," says Ackamoor, who is busier than ever today due to Cultural Odyssey, his multi-faceted collaboration with Rhodessa Jones. (Before a new set of Bay Area performances next year, a trip to Russia is on the horizon.) Ackamoor was right to hold on to his barely-tapped treasure trove of Pyramids material, because the group’s music is built to last. Birth Speed Merging scorches ears with proto-noise. Accompanied by Ted Joans’ written ideas about Afro-Surrealism, King of Kings astounds (the bass runs of "Nsorama") and hypnotizes ("Queen of the Spirits"), in turn.

Such sounds will be a revelation to young listeners, even — or perhaps especially — those whose sensibilities have been shaped by the journeying spirit of the late Alice Coltrane. To paraphrase a credo, the Pyramids played music to make fire and make souls burst out from bodies. "They’ve tried to snuff out that avant-garde energy," Ackamoor notes, when discussing then and now. "This music wasn’t meant to sell drinks. When I listen to it, it even inspires me. I listen to how I sounded, and the freedom with which I played when I was so young — 19, 20, 21. The intensity is so refreshing. I didn’t realize I could play so long." (Huston)

SAN FRANCISCO EXPRESS In the 1970s, San Francisco churned out quality music like nobody’s business. But many of those recordings — despite their innovation or solidity — never saw the light of the day. And so today preservationists abound, seeking to revive the lost treasures discarded in the wake of this music renaissance. Recently, the one and only effort of jazz-funk outfit San Francisco Express, Getting It Together (Reynolds/ Family Groove, 1979), hit the shelves for a new generation. The album embodies the lush cosmic spirit of free form jazz grounded seamlessly in deep pocket funk.

Little is known about Getting It Together. Daniel Borine, Family Groove label owner and source of the reissue, says that the set was recorded circa 1975 at Dr. Patrick Gleeson’s infamous Different Fur studios in SF’s Mission District. Gleeson, who played Moog synthesizer for the arrangement, doesn’t remember the album by name. But oddly enough, Getting It Together recalls Gleeson’s monumental direction for Herbie Hancock on the visionary, electrified jazz of Crossings (Warner, 1971) and Sextant (Sony, 1972) as well as Charles Earland’s epic odyssey, Leaving This Planet (Prestige, 1973). Even though Getting It Together was recorded just after these groundbreaking works, the small independent label Reynolds postponed its release until ’79, possibly due to in-house quarrels. The original pressing provided no substantive information on the recording. And, seemingly outdated amid the burgeoning new sounds of modern soul and disco, it quickly faded into dusty record bins across the country.

Despite Getting It Together‘s unfortunate reception, few jazz-funk records of the mid-1970s sound as cohesive. The sonic landscape shifts effortlessly between conventional melodies and spacey grooves without losing a consistent magnetism. Virtuoso trumpeter Woody Shaw carries the powerhouse horn section, bursting with psychedelic warmth over heavy hitting drum breaks courtesy of Afro-inspired drummer E.W. Wainwright. Gleeson’s keys evoke a sensual intelligence and informed taste for adventure. A remarkable synthesis of the lively experimental jazz era, Getting It Together still feels as inspired and fresh as ever. (Michael Krimper)

THE UNITS Fate and a bond with the musician Bill Nelson once led them to share three squares a day with Robert Plant, but the Units were a punk or post-punk band. And like any great punk or post-punk band, they lived for confrontation. They played in JC Penney storefront windows and even performed the national anthem at a boxing match.

Still, when the Units invoked the smashing of guitars, they did so as a gesture of contempt towards that six-string signifier of readymade rebellion as much as a protest against traditional authority. Whether singing about burritos and how "the Mission is bitchin’" or adapting Gregory Corso’s poetry to song, the Units, you see, wielded keyboards as sonic weapons.

The group’s Scott Ryser has some primarily fond and often very specific memories of the keyboards in question. The Arps, the Octigans, the Roland Junos, and various Korgs and Casios. The Sequential Circuits 800 Sequencer, "without question the most promising and at the same time most belligerent" of the group’s many "unruly kids." And his "sweetheart," the Minimoog, an invention "better than the automobile and the electric dildo combined." For Ryser, "the Minimoog sounds like god and the devil singing in harmony."

God and the devil sing in harmony throughout History of the Units: The Early Years, 1977-1983 (Community Library) — that is, when they aren’t breaking down gloriously. Or colliding against the live drumming that distinguishes the Units from just about any other synth group. ("I just don’t see how a synth band can kick ass without real drums," opines Ryser.) Nervy narratives like "Bugboy" and "High Pressure Days" reflect Ryser’s background writing stories and novels, while the sprawling, gorgeous instrumental "Zombo," inspired by Walter/Wendy Carlos, sounds contemporary today. Unlike many retrospective collections, History of the Units avoids nostalgia — in fact, Ryser adds a blitz of contemporary images to the sleeve art. "To me, the best thing about our band was just the idea of it," he says. Maybe so, but the reality of the Units will trigger more fine ideas. (Huston)