With the exception of Sun Ra, few jazz artists were more visually arresting than Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Blind since age 2, Kirk wore dark glasses and often performed with multiple reed instruments hung around his neck or lodged in his mouth. The uninitiated automatically assumed Kirk's music wouldn't be easy to grasp or even likable. The funny thing about Kirk is that his music was always intelligible as well as gentle, whimsical, lyrical and engaging. All those instruments around his neck? He often played them in harmony to create the sound of a reed section.
Kirk's three albums for Limelight, recorded between 1964 and '65, and one for Verve in 1967 were superb examples of his puckish sense of humor, imagination and playing prowess. During this four-year period, Kirk explored his own compositions and began to interpret pop-rock. Jack Tracy, Limelight's producer, may have urged Kirk to give such songs a whirl out of necessity. When I interviewed Jack for my book, Why Jazz Happened, Jack talked about his struggles at Mercury during this period to remain relevant at a time when his bosses were demanding he go out and find four musicians with long hair. Limelight was a jazz subsidiary of Mercury but a flickering presence as the youth market grew increasingly dominant.
Now, Mosaic has released Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums on four 180-gram vinyl LPs. What's fascinating about the set is that each of the albums is a singular expression that features a completely different mood and instrumental approach by Kirk. What we learn from this box is that Kirk always defied cliché, even when competing against his previous release. We also learn that the piano was fundamental to his improvisational choices, since Kirk always seems to be conversing directly with the person on keyboard. The sound of these remastered discs—the first Mosaic set to be pressed at Chad Kassem's Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kansas—is warm, clear and detail-rich, with woody low notes and rounded highs.
Kirk's first album for Limelight was I Talk With the Spirits, recorded in September 1964 and produced by Bobby Scott, with Jack Tracy supervising. Here, Kirk plays flute, alto flute and African wooden flute and is backed by Horace Parlan, who adds a classy soulfulness to the session. Of particular note is Kirk's The Business Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, a slow, raucous work.
On Rip, Rig and Panic, the second Limelight release recorded in January 1965, Kirk's pianist was Jaki Byard, and the results are astonishing, like a flock of birds taking off for flight. They are joined by Richard Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. No Tonic Pres—a tribute to Lester "Pres" Young lacks a tonic or key and takes a stroll on John Coltrane's turf. Another exhilarating listen is the loping Once in a While, on which Kirk plays tenor sax and manzello and stritch all at once, brilliantly tagging The Man That Got Away.
Slightly Latin from November 1965 was produced by Hal Mooney and embraces a few pop-rock hits of the day, including Walk on By, It's All in the Game and Lennon and McCartney's And I Love Her. Kirk's interpretation of the latter is one of the finest jazz interpretations of a Beatles hit. But the approach here is hardly the Latin of George Shearing's albums. The rhythm may be mildly Latin, but Kirk bends each song around his singular approach, turning radio hits into intricate sculptures without losing melody lines. Parlan is again on piano.
On Now Please Don't Cry, Beautiful Edith (Verve), recorded in May 1967, Kirk plays Hal David and Burt Bacharach's Alfie but slyly adds Sonny Rollins' Alfie's Theme at the end, almost as a political dig, reminding listeners of Sonny's original composition for the film. On this album Kirk is backed by pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. Once again, Kirk plays multiple instruments for texture and harmony. One of the album's high point is Stompin Grounds, a skippy original.
I don't normally listen to vinyl. Most of my albums are in storage and the format just isn't as convenient as iTunes when I'm reporting and writing. For instance, while listening to the Kirk set yesterday, the phone rang and I kept trying to figure out why I couldn't pause the music on my computer. I quickly realized it was the turntable, so I leaned way over the desk, raised the tone arm and answered the cordless phone with the other hand. Despite the momentary inconvenience, my Pete Rose dive for the platter was still worth it given this box's sound.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums (Mosaic), a four 180-gram LP set, here. You can sample tracks from the box there as well.
JazzWax clip: Here's Roland Kirk in 1967 playing My Ship, which he recorded on I Talk With the Spirits, and Creole Love Call...