Saturday, August 7, 2010

Celebrating Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (sax, b. 1936 - d. 1977)

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was born in Columbus, OH and developed the ability to play and compose music in various genres (jazz, classical and pop). But essentially he was a hard bop player with an extreme cutting edge. You could almost call it free jazz but I believe there was more structure in ideas than just mere adventure of thought.

He is famous among the jazz community to his unique performance style which he would play two or three instruments (mainly sax or flute) at once. For many the thought sounds like white noise but the harmonics Kirk would produce were unbelievably fascinating. All of this and Rahsaan Roland Kirk was blind (since the age of two).

Rahsaan Roland Kirk may not be a household name to many but the masses are very familiar with one tune in which he famously performers. "Soul Bossa Nova" recorded by Quincy Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk plays flute throughout. "Soul Bossa Nova" was already when it was originally released in 1962 and has been used ad-nauseam in film and commercials but 35 years later it became an international sensation thanks to Mike Myers Austin Powers films.

Kirk recorded mainly as leader (Quincy Jones, Tubby Hayes, Roy Haynes and a short stint with Charles Mingus the major exceptions) and his catalog is massive. His first release was in 1956, but my personal favourite is also the first Roland Kirk album I ever bought, Rip, Rig and Panic (Verve; 1965). This is a great hard bop date that really shouldn't be ignored. It features a stellear lineup of Elvin Jones (drums), Jaki Byard (piano) and Richard Davis (bass).

From the killer opening of "No Tonic Press" to the lovely free moving flute work of "Mystical Dreams" and bluesy avant garde foreshadowing of his later work on the closing number "Slippery, Hippery, Flippery", Roland Kirk puts himself in a whole different strata than his contemporaries of the period.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk's thinking and modal structure was definitely ahead of its time and many listeners had no idea what to think of the blind multi-reed playing musician. He would go on to record a series of really avant garde albums for Atlantic Records during the late 60s and early 70s. These albums are much more for the die-hard fan. There have been a whole batch of compilations in the last few years on both Kirk's Verve and Atlantic years and they are worth picking up if you don't want to acquire any of the individual albums. My suggestions would Finest Hour (Verve) and Introducing Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Warners UK).

Kirk suffered two strokes in late 70s and finally succumbed to the second stroke in 1975 but he continued to play up to that point. Rahsaan Roland Kirk's legacy as a true innovator and prognosticator of improvisation is without question and today we should celebrate one of the true originals of Jazz. Happy Birthday Mr. Kirk.

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