The artistry of Rahsaan Roland Kirk this weekend. Featuring The Vibration Society, consisting of Robert Shy and drums, Henry Pete Pearson on bass, Ron Burton on piano and Arthur Perry on percussion. Broadcast live and Recorded for posterity by WBCN-FM in Boston on October 29, 1972. Needless to say, it’s a relaxed and loose set and Kirk is more than aware everybody within earshot have fingers poised over the record button on their cassette machines at home. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was more than a cult figure, he was widely admired and appreciated by a large swath of people – FM Underground Rock stations routinely played his albums – the most famous (and memorable cut) during this period was one that came off his 1970 album Rahsaan, Rahsaan for Atlantic – his medley “Goin’ Home” and “Sentimental Journey”. People who had never heard him before were astonished, and it prompted a whole lot of exploring of his earlier material to realize he was the real deal.
It’s interesting that Rahsaan Roland Kirk referred to his compositions as “Black Classical Music that some people call Jazz”. It resonated with a lot of people, and still does to a degree. No one has come along since to breathe that much into a collection of horns all at once.
Here’s a little exposition and light shed on him via Wikipedia:
His playing was generally rooted in soul jazz or hard bop, but Kirk’s knowledge of jazz history allowed him to draw from many elements of the music’s past, from ragtime to swing and free jazz. Kirk also absorbed classical influences, and his artistry reflected elements of pop music by composers such as Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, as well as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and other jazz musicians. The live album Bright Moments (1973) is an example of one of his shows.
Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main saxes were a standard tenor saxophone, stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument’s characteristic upturned bell) and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell). A number of his instruments were exotic or homemade. Kirk modified instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique. Critic Gary Giddins wrote that Kirk’s tenor playing alone was enough to bring him “renown”.
He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, and at times he would play a number of these horns at once, harmonizing with himself, or sustain a note for lengthy durations by using circular breathing. He used the multiple horns to play true chords, essentially functioning as a one-man saxophone section. Kirk insisted that he was only trying to emulate the sounds he heard in his head. Even while playing two or three saxophones at once, the music was intricate, powerful jazz with a strong feel for the blues.
Kirk was also an influential flautist, including recorders. According to Giddins, Kirk was the first major jazz innovator on flute after the 1964 death of Eric Dolphy. Kirk employed several techniques that he developed himself. One technique was to sing or hum into the flute at the same time as playing. Another was to play the standard transverse flute at the same time as a nose flute.
He played a variety of other instruments, like whistles; often kept a gong within reach; the clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and was a competent trumpeter. He had unique approaches, such as using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet.
He also used many non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed “the black mystery pipes”). From the early 1970s, his studio recordings used tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds before such things became commonplace.
Kirk was a major exponent of circular breathing. Using this technique, he was not only able to sustain a single note for an extended period; he could also play sixteenth-note runs of almost unlimited length, and at high speeds. His circular breathing ability enabled him to record “Concerto for Saxophone” on the Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle LP in one continuous take of about 20 minutes’ playing with no discernible “break” for inhaling. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believed he should have received credit in The Guinness Book of World Records for such feats (he was capable of playing continuously “without taking a breath” for far longer than exhibited on that LP), but this never happened.
The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color was a unique album in jazz and popular music recorded annals. It was a two-LP set, with Side 4 apparently “blank”, the label not indicating any content. However, once word of “the secret message” got around among Rahsaan’s fans, one would find that about 12 minutes into Side 4 appeared the first of two telephone answering machine messages recorded by Kirk, the second following soon thereafter (but separated by more blank grooves). The surprise impact of these segments appearing on “blank” Side 4 was lost on the CD reissue of this album.
He gleaned information on what was happening in the world via audio media like radio and the sounds coming from TV sets. His later recordings often incorporated his spoken commentaries on current events, including Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. The 3-Sided Dream album was a “concept album” which incorporated of “found” or environmental sounds and tape loops, tapes being played backwards, etc. Snippets of Billie Holiday singing are also heard briefly. The album even confronts the rise of influence of computers in society, as Rahsaan threatens to pull the plug on the machine trying to tell him what to do.
In the album Other Folks’ Music the spoken words of Paul Robeson, another outspoken black artist, can be briefly heard.
If you aren’t familiar – go exploring – do it today – don’t wait.