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"He spent much of his time listening to earlier music. Rahsaan could have lectured on the history of jazz for a year without any notes," fan/friend Les Scher claimed.
When he wasn't educating audiences on the history of the music, Roland was busy playing it. Bill McLarney recalled seeing Kirk sit in with drummer Duke Hyde's group one night in Detroit. "He played an entire set of Lester Young tunes completely on the tenor, manzello, stritch, or nose flute. It was really something."
The traditional side of Mingus's music resurfaced the following year when his band featured, for three months, multireed player Roland Kirk (later known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk). Kirk was an ideal partner for Mingus. 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. While with Mingus, Kirk invigorated the 1961 Oh Yeah release with a handful of penetrating solos, including an extraordinary "old-timey" outing on "Eat That Chicken." A dozen years later, Kirk rejoined Mingus for a Carnegie Hall concert and stole the show with his sly maneuvering inside and outside the chord changes. The small body of recordings featuring these two jazz masters in tandem is a cause for much idle speculation as to what might have been had they collaborated more often.
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 3rd Ed.
“I can honestly say that Rahsaan changed my life. When I first saw him perform in the 1970s, it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. It was immediately after the release of Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle, and it was like watching a hurricane on stage. The energy was far heavier than anything I was seeing in the punk rock world. Yet it took you somewhere. The contrast of anger and beauty was incredibly affecting: it had a healing effect. Within ten minutes, he would go from a screamfest to the most beautiful version of All Blues played on the nose flute to Creole Love Song on two woodwinds imitating the Ellington Band. After a Kirk set, I would feel like I had taken a long journey, and it left you with hope. This is what I always believed that music could do, and I became obsessed with him. His records lived up to his live shows, yet they were all different. From an album done almost by himself to a collaboration with [vocalist] Al Hibbler, each record was an event. It was no mistake that I sought out his producer [Joel Dorn] and found a place blending into the wallpaper at the studio - anything just to be present.”
- Hal Willner, record producer
Given the recent posting about the second edition of John Kruth’s biography of Rahsaan Roland Kirk - Bright Moments - The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk - 2nd Ed., I thought I would follow with a recommendation as to a starting point for delving into Rahsaan's complicated discography, which, as you would imagine, is studded with tons of bootlegs [most of which have awful audio].
After a moment’s reflection, it was fairly easy to recommend a series of Rahsaan recordings that he made for Mercury from 1961-1965 which have been issued as a boxed set with booklet notes by the esteemed Jazz scholar, Dan Morgenstern.
In other words, why not begin at the beginning of Roland Kirk’s recording career with Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk [10 CDs 846 630-2]?
All of Rahsaan’s recordings represent him in a formative stage of development in the sense that he was constantly reinventing himself through his attraction to and discovery of new sounds. He had an insatiable appetite for incorporating into his music everything and anything that stimulated his musical antennae.
That being said, these early Mercury recordings are less complicated by comparison to what was to come; there aren’t as many layers of sound to work through [although, believe me, there are still plenty], so what comes forward is a pure almost unadulterated Rahsaan, something that the uninitiated can get their ears around.
They also more clearly reveal Rahsaan’s close relationship with the Jazz tradition - the past - if you will, while his later recordings are more reflective of the current trends in the music.
For as John Kruth has observed:
“In an age when most artists and musicians defined their individuality by rebelling against the past, Roland Kirk embraced it as a sparkling, bottomless well of inspiration. He believed wholeheartedly in order to further the music, you had to study where it came from. To Rahsaan, the past was not some looming albatross that overshadowed or threatened his creativity, but a precious flame that, if tended, would continue to burn brightly and guide all musicians on to greater realms of expression.
People are quick to condemn what they don't understand and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, during his short life, provoked more than his fair share of wrath. Confounded critics and astonished audiences who couldn't comprehend his unique gift frequently accused him of "gimmickry."”
Dan Morgenstern annotates each of the ten discs in the boxed set as to track selection, personnel and relevant information after providing the following introduction the the compilation:
by DAN MORGENSTERN
Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers
“Roland Kirk — or Rahsaan, as he preferred to be called in his later years — was a unique phenomenon in the history of music. To be sure, he was not the first to play several instruments simultaneously, Wilbur Sweatman, a pioneer of early jazz, played three clarinets at once, and so did Ross Gorman (known for the opening clarinet glissando on the first recording of "Rhapsody in Blue") and Fess Williams, But these men used it as a showmanship trick, not for creative purposes. In that respect, Kirk came first, and his few emulators and imitators have not been serious competition.
Moreover, that was just one aspect of Kirk's total tonal personality. He mastered every instrument he played, and had his own approach to all of them. And every note he played or sang swung to the hilt. His imagination and energy were awesome, and he channeled all he had in him into his music. When he wasn't playing, he listened — to music of all kinds, to the sounds of nature, to everything around him. When he wasn't making or listening to music, he talked about it, and when he slept, he dreamed about it — the idea of playing more than one instrument at a time came to him in a dream, he claimed. Of course he also had time for other things — women, children (he loved them, most of all his own), and good food and drink, which he consumed prodigiously. But in a lifetime of knowing musicians and lovers of music, I have never met anyone so totally involved in the world of sound as Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“I had the good fortune to get to know him well and hear him often, in many different settings. Our friendship solidified on the 'phone. I was then doing a weekly radio show focused on jazz history, and Roland was an avid listener. He'd call to ask where he could get certain records I'd played, and if they were unavailable, I'd make a tape for him. He had a marvelous record collection that reflected his consuming interest in jazz history — indeed in all music worth hearing. He never limited his horizon to what was "in" or fashionable, and his playing reflected his deep understanding of the music's past, present and future.
In the 1960s, when the performances on this marvellous compilation were recorded, it was not "in” to be so open in one's approach. Those were the days of innovation above all, of "the new thing" in jazz, of strident arguments and rude dismissals — by musicians and critics — of everything that didn't fit the party line. Today almost everyone in jazz pays lip service to history (and more and more young musicians actually know at least some of that history), but in those days, Roland stood out, and he often stuck his neck out as well. He knew all about the music, and he felt responsible for it. He was a kind of living repository of the jazz tradition, as well as a fearless experimenter and traveler into uncharted territory.
He could — and did — play with anyone and hold his own. I've heard him jam with New Orleans veterans (on clarinet), free musicians (mostly on tenor), and everything in between. He never sounded out of place. Yet his playing never descended to the level of accommodation, imitation or clever pastiche. He felt every note he played. And those who called him a musical trickstar or a circus act had better watch out — he could blow them off the bandstand with just one of his horns. Fortunately, there were a hundred fans for every detractor, and they included many musicians: from Harry Carney, the first to ever tell me about Roland, whom he'd met in Cleveland, to Ramsey Lewis, who brought him to the attention of Cadet Records (for whom he made his second LP in 1960, assumed by many to be his first, which was actually done in 1956, for King) and Quincy Jones, who signed him with Mercury and became one of his biggest boosters.
The four years Roland spent with Mercury resulted in some of his finest recorded music. There would be many good things after 1965, mainly for Atlantic, and even his final efforts (he lived from 1935 to 1977), made after he'd miraculously recovered from the stroke he suffered in the fall of 1975, are well worth hearing. But for Roland in his straight-ahead prime, surrounded by famous and not-so-famous sidemen who give him wonderful support in a variety of stimulating settings, the Mercury years stand out.
Brought together here for the first time, and amplified by some splendid previously unissued performances, these musical riches are a fitting tribute to a musician whose "live" impact was so great that it has tended to overshadow his recorded legacy. It is to be hoped that this set will attract new listeners to Rahsaan's unique and brilliantly coloured world of sounds and feelings. To those of us who knew him, it serves as a potent and welcome reminder of his greatness. As is always the case with "Boxman" [Kiyoshi] Koyama's projects, this was a labor of love. It is the result of careful and thorough archival research, expert restoration and presentation — everything a major reissue project should be, but seldom is. Rahsaan, who was a perfectionist, would have been very pleased and proud.”