There is probably no more intimidating a figure in jazz than Rahsaan Roland Kirk. If you don't know much about jazz or are unfamiliar with Kirk's music, images of the artist in sunglasses with four or five different saxophones around his neck or in his mouth probably have led you to only one conclusion: Here is someone who plays wild, noisy music that will be tough to deal with unless free jazz is your bag.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Kirk was an extraordinary talent who loved melody, was fascinated by sound and harmony, and remains along with Wayne Shorter one of the most interesting saxophonist-composers of the 1960s. His works include Bright Moments, Serenade to a Cuckoo, The Inflated Tear, Spirits Up Above and A Handful of Fives.
And if seeing is believing, Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live in '63 and '67, the new DVD just released by Jazz Icons as part of its third series of concert videos, makes Kirk's importance crystal clear. The video shows off all facets of Kirk's gentle genius and will leave your mouth hanging open. Here you'll see Kirk as one-man quintet in action. He switches from one sax to another to produce different textures or plays three at once to extract harmonies as rich as a big band reed section. (To see a video clip, go here and click on "watch preview.")
You also see in this DVD how sensitive Kirk was as an artist and musical storyteller. I think he actually enjoyed his intimidating image, in that it kept away the jazz fakers, leaving only purists who truly understood his message and appreciated his many talents.
Blind from age 2, Kirk was born in 1936 and played trumpet before devoting himself to the clarinet and C-melody saxophone. By age 15, he was playing in an r&b band, developing blues chops that would later come in handy with artists such as Brother Jack McDuff. Kirk's passion for reeds led him to make alterations to instruments with rubber bands and to modify the keys so he could play multiple saxophones at once. He also was a gifted flutist.
Kirk chose to wear a pawnshop's worth of saxophones around his neck not as a some bohemian style thing. There was a more pragmatic reason. He simply loved the different sounds they made individually and together and couldn't see them if they were sitting in stands. Their vibrations on his chest also helped him feel his way through to his art. By 1960, Kirk even added a metal hunting horn to emphasize climactic points in pieces. In 1963, Kirk adapted a circular breathing technique that let him play continuously.
His first recording Triple Threat was in 1956 for King Records. In 1961, he spent three months with Charles Mingus, but after that short stint, Kirk went on to lead groups in concerts and on recording dates for the rest of his career, until his death in December 1977.
Over the years, Kirk's music has managed to slip into semi-obscurity. Long mischaracterized as a far-out player (mostly by those who hadn't heard his music), Kirk was and remains a significant improviser who had a huge soul and beautiful tone. As Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders pointed out, Kirk was better with one hand than most saxophonists were with two.
The Jazz Icons DVD features Kirk playing on three live dates in Belgium (1963), Holland (1963) and Norway (1967). Each song is a wonderful example of an honest artist robbed of sight who finds his way to a song's heart and shares its beauty along the way. Three highlights for me on this video are Milestones, Bags' Groove and The Shadow of Your Smile.
On Milestones, Kirk plays three saxophones and creates almost the same sound as the Miles Davis Sextet's recording of the song. Bags' Groove demonstrates Kirk's ability on the soprano sax while The Shadow of Your Smile shows you what Kirk could do with a pop tune. All are spirited and fabulous.
Kirk was all about jazz ideas and vibrations. You just have to open yourself up a bit to grasp his art and message.
JazzWax tracks: Many jazz fans are unfamiliar with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. To put you at ease, let me first let you in on a funny secret: He's playing stritch and alto sax on Quincy Jones' Soul Bossa Nova. That's the quirky song that the Austin Powers movies used as its theme song.
Now that I have your attention, let me recommend seven Kirk tracks that should serve as a perfect introduction to his art. All can be downloaded at Amazon or iTunes:
Three for Dizzy—Kirk's Work (1961). Issued on Prestige, the album recently underwent the Rudy Van Gelder remastering process and sounds great. This funky blues album featured Kirk (tenor sax, stritch, siren and manzello), Brother Jack McDuff (organ), Joe Benjamin (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). The CD is here.
My Delight—We Free Kings (1961). Fortunately, Mercury had the good sense to sign Kirk for a series of albums. My guess is that Mercury producer Quincy Jones had a hand in this move. We Free Kings features Kirk, Richard Wyands (piano), Art Davis (bass) and Charlie Persip (drums). The CD is here.
Get Out of Town—Domino (1962). Yep, it's the Cole Porter standard, and Kirk handles it beautifully. Joining Kirk were Herbie Hancock (piano), Vernon Martin (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). The CD is here.
Alfie—Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith (1967). Issued by Verve, this rendition of the Burt Bacharach standard is among my favorite versions. Listen to Kirk's tone throughout. Wow. With Kirk were Lonnie Liston Smith (piano), Ronnie Boykins (bass) and Grady Tate (drums). The CD is here.
My Cherie Amour—Volunteered Slavery (1969). Here Kirk adds a full jazz feel to this Stevie Wonder hit. The musicians featured Kirk, Ron Burton (piano), Vernon Martin (bass), Jimmy Hopps (drums) and Joe "Habao" Texidor (percussion). The CD is here.
Make It With You—Blacknuss (1971). Kirk certainly wasn't biased one way or the other. If a song was pretty, he was all too happy to give it the five-instrument treatment, even if the song, like this one, was a pop hit for Bread. The personnel was the same as above, except Henry Pearson was on bass and Richie Goldberg was on drums. The CD is here.
My One and Only Love—Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom (1974). Kirk reaches deep on this ballad. Here we have Kirk, Hilton Ruiz (piano), Henry Pearson (bass), John Goldsmith (drums) and Samson Verge (percussion). The CD is here.