Sunday, November 16, 2008
I recently had the great pleasure of viewing one of the selections from the Jazz Icons dvd series, & I certainly expect to check out others from what appears to be a truly wonderful collection. Eberle & I watched the Rahsaan Roland Kirk dvd, which showcased footage from three 1960s shows in Europe (Belgium, Holland, & Norway). We’re both huge Rahsaan Roland Kirk fans, & the music was as spectacular & inspiring as we expected it to be. It was also wonderful to watch a great jazz musician without the drone of obligatory commentary & anecdote that unfortunately always finds its way into musician documentaries—nothing on this dvd but music.
But here’s the drone of obligatory commentary….
I had the privilege of seeing Kirk perform twice during the 70s, once at the Vermont Jazz Festival, & once in 1977 in Burlington, VT at what was one of his very last shows before he succumbed to a stroke at a tragically young 41 years old. If my memory’s right, he was the headliner at the Burlington show, along with Gil Scott-Heron—what a night of music.
For those of you who don’t know, Kirk was a tenor saxophonist plus—with emphasis on the plus. His flute playing was transcendent—a wild mixture of haunting melody, “sung” notes, percussion, & unclassifiable but always dead on the money “effects”; & in addition, he played clarinet & two obscure sax-like instruments, the manzello & the stritch Both of these names are words coined by Kirk. The strich is a straight alto sax made by the Buescher company in the 20’s—to my ear it sounds almost like an oboe—, while the manzello is a modified saxello—it looks like an alto sax, but sounds more like a soprano. In addition, Kirk also played a nose flute, & would frequently use a siren, various whistles & a gong. Perhaps the thing he’s most known for is his ability to play as many as three instruments at once (frequently the tenor, manzello, & stritch, but he also played the clarinet in combination with at least one other instrument), & even when not playing these instruments all at once, he’d frequently switch between instruments in mid song (for instance, he sometimes stored his flute in the bell of his tenor to have it at the ready).
Now until you've heard &/or seen Kirk, this sounds like a gimmick—like playing guitar or uke behind your back, etc. Even in the hands of an extraordinarily skilled player like Roy Smeck, such string pyrotechnics are entertaining & impressive, but really don’t add to the music itself. When Rahsaan Roland Kirk reaches into his musical bag of tricks, it always enhances the music. Eberle made the comment while watching the Jazz Icons dvd that Kirk “isn’t like a one-man band, he’s like a one-man orchestra,” suggesting the depth & range of his playing; Quincy Jones noted that if had had Rahsaan & a drummer, he’d “have a big band.” See Quincy’s remarks here on YouTube, then stick around to hear Kirk perform his great tune “Pedal Up,” backed by McCoy Tyner on piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, & Lenny White on drums. There are quite a number of Kirk videos on YouTube; another that’s really worth your time is his rendition of “Balm in Gilead” at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival. I gotta say, tho, the percussionist in that video seems like a real nicotine fiend to have a cig in hand mid gig along with his tambourine….
Kirk put out his first album (Triple Threat) in 1956. His first album to really garner critical attention was 1961’s We Free Kings. Some other especially noteworthy releases (you really can’t go wrong with much of anything in the Kirk catalog) would be the all-flute I Talk with Spirits from 1964, in which Kirk duets with a singer, a cuckoo clock, a music box & a vibraphone, as well as playing everything from blues to Kurt Weill with a full-on band; The Inflated Tear from 1967; Volunteered Slavery from 68 (partly recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival); 1972’s Blacknuss, a fascinating reworking of soul material, including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “My Girl” & a rip roaring version of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” as well as a transcendent version of the old spiritual “Old Rugged Cross,” the latter including one of Kirk’s inimitable spoken intros. I also have to mention Bright Moments, a personal favorite album, & the title song is also one of my very favorite songs of all time (& Kirk again gives a memorable intro to this version—the album was recorded live at San Francisco’s Keystone Corner). In fact, while it’s hard to pick one Kirk album, Bright Moments would be as good a place to start as any for those interested in hearing this man’s music—it’s got original music, his trademarked “talks,” flute, old standards, & all played with the ebullience & uncanny melody Kirk possessed in spades. Jazz critic Michael Ullman said of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Hearing him, one can almost feel that music, like the Lord in 'Shine On Me', can 'heal the sick and raise the dead'." Of course, the Jazz Icons dvd also would be an excellent starting point.
It’s probably important to know that Kirk was born with very poor eyesight, which he lost completely due to incompetent medical treatment when he was very young. He began performing on tenor sax & clarinet around age 12. As a young man, he took up the manzello & stritch after dreaming that he’d find them in the basement of a local music store (which he did); in fact, Kirk always claimed that his religion was the “religion of dreams,” because so many ideas came to him in this way. Dreams also led him to perform on more than one instrument at a time & to add the name Rahsaan. Although Kirk was a bandleader most of his career, he did perform with Charles Mingus on the 1961 album Oh Yeah, & toured with the Mingus band at that time.
Although Kirk was sometimes dismissed by critics as merely a showman, he was widely respected by fellow musicians who knew he was all about the music. Kirk also didn’t care for the term “jazz”; he favored the term “black classical music,” because he thought composers like Ellington, Waller, Monk, etc. should be accorded the same status as the European classical composers. Kirk also was a master of circular breathing, which enabled him to hold notes almost interminably, & also to play very fast runs without taking a breath. His "Concerto For Saxophone" on the 1973 Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle album is one continuous take of about 20 minutes' playing with no "break" for inhaling.
So do yourself a favor & get familiar with this great musical artist.