Channeling The Mad Alchemist

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The New York Sun

The two most basic things everyone should know about the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose music is being celebrated this week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (by a band led by his one-time protégé, Steve Turre), are that he played the saxophone, and he played bop. The rest is gravy, but this is a case where the gravy is nearly as important as the meat.

Kirk didn’t just play the sax, he played every member of the saxophone and woodwind family, often two or three of them simultaneously. Likewise, he used modern jazz as a home base, from which he went backward to New Orleans and swing, forward to free jazz, and sideways into R&B, soul, and other forms of pop — and he often did all of that simultaneously as well.

When Kirk played several horns at the same time, they tended to blur together sonically into a single instrument, the Kirk apparatus, or what could be called the “Rahsaanica.” Similarly, he tended to bring all the various strata of black music, and all the permutations of jazz and blues, into a single form. Kirk played everything at once and at every level.

Kirk, who was blind from the age of two, was himself a helluva sight: dark glasses, a colorful jumpsuit, a dapper goatee, cheeks puffed out, with up to a dozen horns hanging around his neck. He seemed to have emerged from some tribal society — the medicine man, the guru, and the entertainer all rolled into one. Kirk was at once a showman and a shaman, like 150 channels of cable TV playing at the same time.

He was born Ronald Kirk in Columbus, Ohio, in 1935, but felt compelled by a dream to jumble two letters in his first name to make Roland. By the age of 15 he was playing tenor saxophone professionally. Over the years, he told several stories about how he came to play multiple horns at the same time; most often he said, unsurprisingly, that the idea came to him in a dream, but he also told fellow Ohio jazzman Bill Hardman (who later told me) that he heard the record of the famous two-tenor duel, “The Chase,” by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, and assumed that both saxes were being played by the same musician.

Some time later, while in a pawn shop in Columbus, he stumbled across two distant relatives of the saxophone family, which he christened the “stritch” (sort of a straight alto and likewise in E-flat) and the “manzello” (his variation on the b-flat saxcello), which he continually modified, along with the traditional B-flat tenor. Together, they came to comprise his “horn section.” He also played very funky clarinet, somewhat in the vein of Pee Wee Russell (most famously on Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”), and a battery of whistles and flutes, one of which he operated with his nose. (His prettiest flute solo is probably his classically inspired “Variation on a Theme of Hindemith” from 1963.) Yet Kirk, who also played the flute solo on Quincy Jones’s “Soul Bossa Nova” (later known as the Austin Powers theme), also developed a way of playing harsher music on the flute, shouting and singing into the instrument, a device eventually mainstreamed by Ian Anderson of the rock band Jethro Tull.

At times, Kirk played two or three horns together in harmony, like the reeds in a big band; at others, he could play melody on one horn and a harmonic or contrapuntal line on another. Kirk was especially brilliant at embellishing the language of the jazz heritage. When he played “turnarounds” — when one chorus ends and another begins, or when there is a transition from the main melody to the improvisation, or when one soloist yields to another — Kirk would make the moments even more thrilling by signaling them with a loud sliding siren, making sure everybody was paying attention.

Kirk did his best work as a comparatively straight-ahead bopper in the early 1960s when he recorded for Mercury Records and producer Jack Tracy; by the end of the decade, when he switched to Atlantic and producer Joel Dorn, he was steadily adding other elements to his music.

When he released his 1970 album, “Rahsaan Rahsaan,” and began going by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, many assumed he had converted to Islam — but it was just a made-up word that had come to him in another dream. Ever the experimenter, Kirk was ideally suited to the music scenes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Atlantic (and, later, Warner Bros.) projects increasingly included more contemporary chart hits, Motown songs, and Burt Bacharach, but they also utilized Beatles/Monty Python techniques, like splicing in random bits of sound, such as the rhythmic horse hoofs in the middle of 1975 “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream in Audio Color.”

In the 1970s, there was an increasingly spiritual — or mock-spiritual — dimension to Kirk’s work, as well as more of a tendency toward over-blowing and avant-garde jazz techniques. Both of these developments were strongly influenced by his friend John Coltrane; Kirk’s screeches and shrieks conjured a shaman speaking in tongues in a religious service. He had begun to talk about “the Vibration Society,” a semi-serious theory of creation that stressed how the universe was held together by the molecules, as it were, of sound production.

Kirk could be given to extreme gimmickry, as on his 1973 Saxophone Concerto, “Prepare Thyself To Deal With a Miracle,” on which he holds a single note for literally forever via circular breathing. It was more of a miracle, however, when he was able to recover after a debilitating stroke in 1975 left him partially paralyzed on one side. He continued to perform, modifying his instruments to enable him to play with one arm. Two years later, a second stroke felled him at 42.

For the last few years, producer Joel Dorn has reissued nearly all of the albums he and Kirk made together. What’s primarily needed now is a major DVD to provide visual evidence of the man in action. Kirk was the first jazzman I can remember experiencing in person (when he played a children’s museum near where I lived in Crown Heights in the early 1970s) so take my word for it, he had to be seen to be believed, and believed to be seen.

From the Vault: Four Rahsaan Roland Kirk Gems

Does Your House Have Lions: The Rahsaan Roland Kirk Anthology (1961): Assembled by Mr. Dorn for Rhino Records in 1993, this would be the definitive Kirk collection if only it included some of his earlier Mercury material. It does, however, contain most of Kirk’s key tracks from the 1965–75 period, as well as “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am,” his 1961 feature with Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop.

Rip, Rig And Panic (1965): This album is generally regarded as Kirk’s best pure jazz session, thanks largely to the powerhouse drumming of Elvis Jones. But it’s also the project on which Kirk first began seriously exploring jazz styles of the neoclassical past.

Volunteered Slavery (1968): This package is half live and half studio, and features Kirk playing with relentless energy and unstoppable momentum. It was Kirk who taught me to love “I Say a Little Prayer,” not Dionne Warwick; he’s equally convincing chewing up Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” on flute.

Bright Moments (1973): A double dose of Kirk in front of a live crowd at Todd Barkan’s Keystone Korner in San Francisco, highlighted by his catchiest song (the title track), his New Orleans street parade, “Dem Red Beans and Rice,” and the Stylistics’ “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart),” on which Rahsaan becomes a one-man girl-group.

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