We Free Kings, Kirk’s Work, and Domino demonstrate Kirk’s raw jazz talent
by Marshall Bowden
Rahsaan Roland Kirk was like the ultimate street musician—wearing perhaps a battered top hat or a more rugged stocking cap with dark wrap-around shades, a string of horns, some of his own creation, around his neck—yet, when he played, there was no question that he was a masterful and brilliant musician. He played tenor sax and flute about as well as anyone ever has; he knew the history of black music, from New Orleans to the Mississippi Delta up through gospel, blues, rock & roll, soul, you name it, and could play them all –well—on three instruments at once; he had musical sophistication but never lost sight of his role as a performer and entertainer.
Oh, yeah, and he was blind. Kirk mastered difficult techniques in order to be able to play the music he heard in his head. He mastered circular breathing, a very difficult skill that allowed him to play more than one horn at a time, and he learned and invented alternate fingerings as well. That skill stood him in good stead when he suffered a stroke two years before his death and had to engineer a way to play saxophone with only one working hand.
When people accuse Kirk of having been a gimmick, a circus act, a freak show, whatever, I have to laugh. Was Charlie Parker’s inherent ability to reharmonize standard tunes on the fly at the speed of sound a gimmick? Was Louis Armstrong’s invention of scat singing a gimmick? Kirk’s body of work has become increasingly available as the digital age has progressed and new recordings have become available, and he is being reinterpreted as a major jazz performer. Joel Dorn, who produced many of Kirk’s recordings for Atlantic Records, long devoted himself to elevating Kirk’s standing among jazz aficionados, and continued to reissue Kirk recordings and release newly discovered ones on his various record labels.
When people tell me that they think Kirk was a gimmicky entertainer, or that his later work became too soul and R&B inflected to be jazz, I frequently start by recommending that they check out his 1961 Mercury recording We Free Kings. Kirk was emerging as a major talent in ’61, appearing on Charles Mingus’ album Oh Yeah and recording with Quincy Jones.
We Free Kings was recorded in 1961 over the course of two days in August. Charlie Persip remained on drums throughout the sessions, but the bass and piano chairs changed between one day and the next. Kirk performs a number of his own compositions, as always, but there are two very interesting covers. One is Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice”, played by Kirk first on tenor saxophone, then as an ensemble on two horns simultaneously. He solos on tenor as well as the manzello, an instrument that sounds somewhat like a soprano sax.
Hearing Kirk solo on this bebop workout is a revelation, confirmation that here is a true jazzman, not some type of vaudeville gimmick or carnival freak. In fact, the “ensemble” work that Kirk plays simultaneously as an introduction to solos by pianist Richard Wyands and drummer Charlie Persip are tight, well-thought out mini-arrangements that add to Parker’s tune rather than detracting in any way from it. Kirk’s manzello solo, which follows, is less traditional, hinting at some of John Coltrane’s modal work. The remastered Mercury Records Emarcy Series CD contains both the master take and an alternate take, both of which are thoroughly enjoyable.
For those who believe that Kirk’s later work was too populist and too R&B/soul-influenced, I suggest the recent RVG Remaster of Prestige’s Kirk’s Work, also recorded in ’61, which features Kirk in the company of bassist Joe Benjamin, drummer Art Taylor, and organist Jack McDuff. Kirk’s Work is an all-out soul jazz treat, with McDuff’s organ and Kirk’s tenor, manzello, stritch, flute, and siren creating , at times, a small big band sound. Of particular note is Kirk’s flute playing on the aptly named blues “Funk Underneath.”
Kirk’s flute playing is among the best in jazz. Ever. Period. That he was not better recognized as a jazz flautist was, I think, a sore point for him, especially when he saw a musician like Herbie Mann receiving accolades on the instrument. Perhaps most rankling was that Mann, who started off playing multiple reed instruments (not at the same time) eventually just played flute and was highly successful. It doesn’t take a genius to hear that Kirk was far and away the better, more innovative musician, despite Mann’s competence on flute.
In 1962, Kirk recorded Domino for Mercury, an album that was later reissued by Verve with many alternate takes that offer further insight into his work at this time. The first six tracks feature Kirk with pianist Andrew Hill, and the pianist is an excellent collaborator with Kirk. Domino is a much more straight ahead, albeit modern, jazz session, and few would find anything here that they’d characterize as anything but jazz. The other four tracks that appeared on the original LP feature Kirk with supremely swinging pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Roy Haynes. These are quite different in nature, as are the extra tracks here, all recorded in a session with pianist Herbie Hancock that was done a day before the session with Kelly.
By now it should be apparent that Kirk was able to work with the best musicians around at the time, and that if a musician had his stuff together, Kirk was able to find common ground no matter what style was in play. Kirk himself was always open to new, young musicians, and would invite them to jam with him on the bandstand, but woe to the musician who did not have his chops together or who didn’t know the history of jazz in the encyclopedic way that Kirk did! Rahsaan Roland Kirk embodied, in many ways, the days when hot New Orleans musicians competed with each other to see who could play the best choruses or when musicians in big bands engaged in cutting contests. He was a competitive guy, and he could cut most musicians to shreds, but if he respected a musician, he definitely could put his best foot forward.
Pretty much everything Kirk recorded for the Mercury label between 1961 and 1965 is a convincing argument for Kirk, the superlative jazz musician. These recordings were collected in the 10-CD set Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk, now out of print, but still available if you search around online.