Rahsaan Roland Kirk - A particularly inventive tornado.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk - Live in Copenhagen - Club Montmartre - October 24, 1963 - Gordon Skene Sound Collection -
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The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk this week. Live in Copenhagen and with a quartet that features, Tete Montoliu, piano, Niels Henning-Pedersen on bass and J.C. Moses on drums (with Alex Riel, subbing for Moses on Basie Eyes) - and recorded on October 24, 1963 for DK Radio.
Geoffrey Himes, in his 2008 JazzTimes article, gives a pretty solid account and assessment of Kirk's work - here's an excerpt:
Any new musical technique-whether it is the electric guitar, saxophone dissonance or the musical saw-seems a gimmick when it first appears. No one thinks of electric guitar and saxophone dissonance as novelties anymore, because too much great music has been made with them. The musical saw, by contrast, still seems a gimmick, because the instrument has yet to find the genius who might unleash its possibilities. Kirk’s innovations-the multiple horn playing, the circular breathing, the flute singing, the uncommon instruments-have been imitated by a few musicians. But he doesn’t require followers to prove the worth of his breakthroughs because he has already proven great music can be made with them.
Kirk didn’t invent his techniques any more than Charlie Christian invented amplification or John Coltrane dissonance. There had long been musicians who would play multiple horns or employ circular breathing in carnivals and juke joints for the sheer “wow” factor of the spectacle. But because such practices were disdained they were also free from expectations, and Kirk, like Christian and Coltrane before him, could write his own rules in the absence of any precedents. In other words, the very weirdness of the techniques was not incidental to the resulting innovations, but served as the door through which the breakthroughs walked. “His willingness to try such unusual methods was part of his creativity,” maintains Kirk’s longtime friend Jimmy Heath. “Anyone who tries something new finds themselves having to justify themselves. The whole bebop generation went through that. Whenever someone comes out with something else, the new movement is belittled by people who are doing what they think should be done. But any movement that comes along has something to offer.”
It’s useful to remember that most of Kirk’s unusual techniques were not adopted when he was an adult professional trying to find an edge in a competitive business but were taken up when he was a teenager trying to find his musical voice. They were not extraneous additions to his playing; they were at the core of his sound from the beginning. “The basic gestalt of his music-the joy, the overwhelming virtuosity, the experimentation-was all there in the ’50s,” insists Kirk’s childhood friend Todd Barkan. “In his youth, he adapted the day-to-day objects of his environment for music-making purposes-even a garden hose became the black mystery pipes. When I traveled with him in the ’70s, he didn’t seem substantially different from the person I’d known in the ’50s, only more organized and focused.”
Kirk had been blind from infancy, but his mother Gertrude made a point of making him as independent as possible. She encouraged him to travel on his own and to pursue his music without fear. Though she died when she was 36, she instilled such pride in her son that he often bristled at any slight. “He disliked the word ‘blind’ profusely,” his widow Dorthaan Kirk points out. “He’d say, ‘I’m not blind; I just don’t see the way the rest of you do.’ When we’d go down the street and see a sightless person with a cup begging for money,’ he never wanted to put money in the cup, because he thought everyone should be as independent as he was. I’d tell him, ‘Not everyone can be as confident as you are.’
“One of the things I hated most was going to a restaurant with him. The waitress would inevitably ask, ‘What does he want?’ He would get so angry. He’d say, ‘Miss, maybe I can’t see, but I can talk and I know what I want.’ OK, so we get the food, but then the check comes and who do you think the waitress gives the check to? He’d say, ‘Miss, do you think because I can’t see I don’t have any money?’ He probably had more money in his pocket than anyone else there.”
Though he was blind, he loved to go as a teenager to the Gaetz Music Store in Columbus and have the owner pull out strange instruments and describe them. That’s how Kirk found the mangled saxello, pulled from the shop’s cellar, that he turned into the “moon zellar” or “manzello,” and the straight alto that he customized as a “stritch.” When he was about 16, Kirk had a dream of playing his tenor sax and his two new acquisitions at once, and he immediately set out to figure out how to do it in his waking life.
This created a pattern that would continue the rest of his life. Kirk was always picking up unlikely instruments and bending them to his will. Jimmy Heath remembers the time he received a shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute, as a present from his brother Tootie. Not long after, Jimmy went to see his old friend Kirk at Pep’s, the Philadelphia nightclub. “I told Rahsaan, ‘My brother Tootie gave me this shakuhachi but I can’t get a sound out of it,'” Heath remembers. “I handed it to Rahsaan and he immediately got a sound out of it. That was embarrassing enough, but I went back there three days later and he said from the stage, ‘Jimmy Heath, I’m going to play a song on the shakuhachi.’ He had already mastered it and was already making music with it.”
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