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Friday, November 04, 2005

Underrated Jazzman: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Blinded by a careless nurse as a child, Rahsaan Roland Kirk became a completely original performer, driven by a profound love for music and for blacknuss that he wore proudly on his sleeve. He played various saxophones, clarinets, flutes, whistles, recorders, and pretty much anything he could find to blow in to, and played them all with effortless skill. His main instruments were tenor saxophone, and two obscure saxophones used in turn-of-the-last-century Spanish military bands: the manzello (a small instrument, similar to a soprano sax) and the strich (a straight alto sax without the characteristic upturned bell). He often performed with all three hanging from his neck, and was well-known for devising a way to play them all at once. Kirk also perfected circular breathing, and is said to have been able to sustain a note for more than an hour. On the flute, he nurtured a technique to produce a throaty, exuberant, doubled sound by singing or humming in to the mouthpiece while he played, which was later adopted (for better or for worse) by Jethro Tull.

More than any other jazz performer I can think of, the body of Kirk's work reveals a musician with a bottomless well of passion for music. On his recordings a sheer joy in sound is evident in every note, every trill, every yelp, woop, and grunt. Kirk is not always counted among the great men of jazz because his performances could seem gimmicky, but he insisted that his three-saxophone techinque, all his talking, hooting, and hamming it up while playing, his use of sirens and whistles, and everything else in his sizable bag of tricks, were just an attempt to produce the sounds that he heard in his head.

Listening to Kirk play, it is apparent that this was a man with sounds in his head. His performances were the sonic equivalent of a pot boiling over, music escaping from his open mouth as if he were divinely possessed by the sounds in his imagination. Kirk clearly bared his soul in his music, but at the same time, he is one of those performers who sometimes seem to be merely a conduit through which the music travels from wherever inspiration lives to our ears. Jazz critic J.E. Berendt said that Kirk had "all the wild untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz musician"; to me this perfectly sums up his otherworldly yet totally human spirit.

Some woefully short samples of his playing are avaible at the official Rahsaan Roland Kirk site. Serenade to a Cuckoo is rightfully one of his best-known songs. It highlights the breezy, conversational side of his flute playing. Ain't No Sunshine is another flute track, this one demonstrating his trick of humming/singing into the instrument. Stompin' Grounds shows off Kirk's sax chops in a more standard bop context, while Theme for the Eulipions has him irresistably drawling a dusky, low blues line on the tenor. Better yet, head over to Amazon to hear more of his playing -- try the first disc of the Dog Years In The Fourth Ring box set. But if you hear one Rahsaan Roland Kirk album, I recommend 1964's I Talk With Spirits (Kirk's technique plays nicely in the free-wheelin' context of early-to-mid-60's jazz), or 1971's Blacknuss (with more of a low-down-funky soul jazz feel).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm still grateful to you for introducing me to RRK a few years ago. he had the gift of communication through his instruments - definitely something not found through simple gimmickry or technical accomplishment.


8:29 PM  

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