Jazz at 100 Hour 72: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Roland Kirk, who began recording in 1956, had been an ideal sideman for Charles Mingus, appearing on the 1961 release, Oh Yeah. In the 1960s, he established himself in the first tier of jazz players with a series of well-received records for Mercury and Limelight before settling into a decade-long relationship with Atlantic.

“A stellar soloist, he could play with authenticity and forcefulness in any jazz style, from trad to free, and on a host of instruments—not just conventional saxes and clarinets but pawnshop oddities such as manzello, stritch, siren whistle, and nose flute. Kirk’s arsenal of effects was seemingly endless, ranging from circular breathing to playing three horns at once. This versatility came, in time, to be a curse. Had he focused on a single instrument, he would have been acknowledged as a master. Instead he was too often dismissed as little more than a jazz novelty act.” – Ted Gioia

We Free Kings.
“This is the first major Kirk record, and the opening ‘Three For The Festival’, a raucous blues, is already evidence for his greatness. Kirk’s playing is all over the place. He appears out of nowhere and stops just where you least expect him to… ‘My Delight’ suggests that he is listening to John Coltrane’s music… The title-track is a wacky, but utterly logical version of the Christmas carol. The multi-instrumentalism is at this stage to a large degree subordinate to straightforward blowing, albeit in unfamiliar tonalities and timbres, but what one remembers about each of Kirk’s solos is how logical it sounds and how complete.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Three For The Festival. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/manzello/stritch/fl/siren, Hank Jones-p, Wendell Marshall-b, Charlie Persip-d). From We Free Kings. 6/17/1961

My Delight. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/manzello/stritch/fl/siren, Richard Wyands-p, Art Davis-b, Charlie Persip-d). From We Free Kings. 8/16/1961

We Free Kings. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/manzello/stritch/fl/siren, Hank Jones-p, Wendell Marshall-b, Charlie Persip-d). From We Free Kings. 6/17/1961

Rip, Rig and Panic.
“His first Mercury album, We Free Kings, remains a classic of the era and is, for me, one of his two most satisfying albums, along with Rip, Rig and Panic, recorded for Mercury in 1965. His flute playing represented the first persuasive new approach on that instrument after Eric Dolphy. His stop-time blues, expansive melodies, and voluptuous swinging on all the saxophones were compelling. What made the record overpowering, however, was the alleged gimmick: the ecstatic sound of the unison reeds, riffing like a big band, soaring before and after the improvisations, which were themselves heightened by unpredictable shifts between tenor, stritch, manzello, and flute. It was a genuinely unique album. Kirk rejected the total immersion in protracted improvisation preached in Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s ‘Chasin’ the Trane,’ but he did embody a prophetic refusal to relinquish the lusty pleasures of big bands (albeit a one-man version), swing, lilting waltzes, and nostalgic ballads, all of which he made aggressively new.” – Gary Giddins

“Kirk’s [Rip, Rig and Panic] session was a milestone, a near perfect album that didn’t change anything, but captured four musicians on a day of mutual inspiration: Rip, Rig and Panic put Kirk in front of a kinetic rhythm section – [pianist Jackie] Byard, [bassist] Richard Davis, and [drummer] Elvin Jones. He revived a great neglected ballad, ‘Once in a While,’ which his idol Don Byas had memorably recorded in 1945, and wrote six new pieces, among his finest ever. ‘From Bechet, Fats, and Byas’ employs stride piano not as a novelty, but as an integral part of the composition.” – Gary Giddins

Once In A While. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/str/fl/siren/ob/cast, Jaki Byard-p, Richard Davis-b, Elvin Jones-d). From Rip, Rig & Panic. 1/13/1965

From Bechet, Byas, And Fats. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/str/fl/siren/ob/cast, Jaki Byard-p, Richard Davis-b, Elvin Jones-d). From Rip, Rig & Panic. 1/13/1965

The Inflated Tear.
The Inflated Tear was Roland Kirk’s first studio album for Atlantic and a triumphant confirmation of his improvising powers… ‘The Black And Crazy Blues’ is one of his most affecting performances, unexpectedly quiet and unemphatic for an opening track, but subtly constructed on many levels. ‘Creole Love Call’ receives a definitive reading, but it’s the other Kirk originals (which mystifyingly have rarely been picked up by other musicians) that establish a faintly mournful, sometimes throat-catchingly emotional mood: ‘Many Blessings’, ‘A Handful Of Fives’, the gorgeous ‘Fly By Night’ and the unpronounceable ‘Lovellevelliloqui’. – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

The Black and Crazy Blues. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/str/cl/fl/whistle/ehr/flexaphone, Ron Burton-p, Steve Novosel-b, Jimmy Hopps-d). From The Inflated Tear. 11/27/1967

The Creole Love Call. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/str/cl/fl/whistle/ehr/flexaphone, Ron Burton-p, Steve Novosel-b, Jimmy Hopps-d). From The Inflated Tear. 11/27/1967

Fly By Night. Roland Kirk Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/str/cl/fl/whistle/ehr/flexaphone, Ron Burton-p, Steve Novosel-b, Jimmy Hopps-d). From The Inflated Tear. 11/30/1967

Collaborations – The Jaki Byard Experience & Meeting of the Times.
Some of Kirk’s most interesting music came in collaborations, especially with pianist Jaki Byard and big band singer Al Hibbler. Byard, who had been featured on Kirk’s LP Rip, Rig & Panic, brought Kirk into his 1968 session that produced The Jaki Byard Experience.

On Thelonious Monk’s ‘Evidence’, “Kirk jumps into circular breathing after stating Monk’s melody, and by the end of the first chorus is starting to oscillate between weak and overstrong. It’s an exciting solo, but it essentially goes through a decorous bebop first chorus as a formality and then, right on the first downstroke of the second chorus, goes crazy, saving the highest firepower for the bridge and the final A section of the third chorus. Byard, on the other hand, works in equal amounts of spaciousness and note flinging in the first chorus; lands on a useful idee fixe (a blues scale hammered top-to-bottom in chords) in the second, ending the second with slightly Monkish rhythm; in the third, he pours in the notes but becomes decorous again in the bridge and ends with a pronounced trill, Essentially, both musicians are using a similar comportment, but Byard handles his with provocative tension and release, while Kirk, after the introduction is all tension.” – Ben Ratliff

Evidence. Jaki Byard Quartet
(Roland Kirk-ts/mzo/cl/whistle/kirkbam, Jaki Byard-p, Richard Davis-b, Alan Dawson-d). From The Jaki Byard Experience. 9/23/1968

A Meeting of the Times, “A peculiarly inspired album, …paired [Kirk] with the bass-baritone Al Hibbler, who had sung with Ellington and enjoyed a few hits in the ’50s. Hibbler was blind, idiosyncratic, and unstoppably mannered, his wry twisting of vowels frequently leading him into faux-cockney pronunciations. In Kirk’s parlance, the teaming is dreamlike.”- Gary Giddins

Daybreak’ features Kirk on clarinet before he switches to flute for a tremulous out passage.

Daybreak [Based on the theme of Mardi Gras from “Mississippi Suite”]. Rahsaan Roland Kirk with Al Hibbler
(Rahsaan Roland Kirk (ts/mzo/str/cl/fl/bars, Hank Jones-p, Ron Carter-b, Grady Tate-d, Al Hibbler-voc). From A Meeting of the Times. 3/30/1972

In 1970, Roland Kirk took the name Rahsaan Roland Kirk and for the next five years recorded an increasingly political series of LPs. He suffered a stroke in 1975 but continued to play and record with specially-adapted instruments that could be played one-handed. He died at 42 in 1977.

Fate could not have treated Blue Note saxophonists Tina Brooks and Jackie McLean more differently. While McLean released nine LPs for Prestige and two dozen for Blue Note between 1956 and 1967, only one of Tina Brooks’s four Blue Note sessions was released in his lifetime. Yet their collaborations on McLean’s Jackie’s Bag and the unreleased Brooks session Back To The Tracks, are among the highlights of the hard bop era. McLean went on the record a series of avant garde leaning hard bop sessions with trombonist Grachan Moncur III in 1963. Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean and Grachan Moncur III in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

Roland Kirk. We Free Kings. Mercury MG 20679
Roland Kirk. Rip, Rig & Panic. Limelight LM 82027
Roland Kirk. The Inflated Tear. Atlantic SD 1502
Jaki Byard. The Jaki Byard Experience. Prestige PR 7615
Rahsaan Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler. A Meeting of the Times. Atlantic 1630

Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 47. Rahsaan Roland Kirk (One-Man Band)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 7. The Fragmentation of Jazz Styles
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Roland Kirk. We Free Kings
Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The Inflated Tear
Rahsaan Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler. A Meeting of the Times
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 79. Jaki Byard. The Jaki Byard Experience (1968)

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