Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2017: Anna-Lisa Kirby

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: I Talk With the Spirits

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The sax player and flautist Roland Kirk unjustly earned a reputation for being gimmicky because of his eccentric, often bizarre appearance on stage and because he played as many as three instruments in his mouth at once. His stature is worth defending because Kirk was an innovative soloist and an entertaining performer who was well versed in jazz. As a composer, he contributed several important songs, including “Volunteered Slavery,” “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” and “Bright Moments.” Today, DJs around the world plunder his library for new sounds.

Kirk was at home on a number of wind instruments, not just the flute and saxophones, but also nose flute, stritch, manzello, and trumpophone. He was a master of the technique called circular breathing, which meant he could sustain notes for long periods of time without pausing by exhaling through his mouthpiece while inhaling through his nose. He also modified his saxophones and other instruments so that they could be played simultaneously.

Kirk’s achievements are all the more remarkable because, at the age of two, he became blind. He was born Ronald Kirk but after a dream reversed two letters in his first name, and after another dream in 1970, he changed his first name and also adopted the name Rahsaan. As a teenager in the 1950s in Ohio, Kirk played in rhythm and blues bands. He worked as a sideman with Charles Mingus in 1960, but from then on led his own groups. He recorded his first album in 1960, and went on to make twenty-seven more. Sadly he suffered a stroke in 1975 that paralyzed one side of his body. He continued to play and even perform with one hand until his death from another stroke in 1977.

I Talk With the Spirits [Verve #3145580762] was recorded for Mercury/Limelight records. Kirk was signed to the label by Quincy Jones (who was then a record executive). He’s accompanied by Horace Parlan on piano, Bob Moses on vibes, Michael Fleming on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums, with the occasional assistance of Crystal-Joy Albert on vocals. The two sessions were produced by pianist and songwriter Bobby Scott. Scott would later have success writing “A Taste of Honey,” a hit first for the Beatles and later for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” which topped the chart for the Hollies.

Of all Kirk’s recordings this is his least sensational, a classy collection of ten well-known standards and originals in a variety of moods. It marks the first and only time the multi-instrumentalist played the flute exclusively on a release (a suggestion from his wife). While his contemporaries, such as Herbie Mann, were playing the flute with big round notes, Kirk’s sound had more grits and guts to it. The swinging original, “A Quote from Clifford Brown,” is a tribute to the trumpet player. “Trees” is a tranquil original that deserves to be better known. Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and the medley “We’ll Be Together Again” is soulful and beautiful.

The playful “Serenade to a Cuckoo” is Kirk’s best-known song. It was made popular by the British rock band Jethro Tull, whose leader, Ian Anderson, was influenced by Kirk and duplicated his way of singing into his flute as he was playing it. Kirk collected cuckoo clocks and said he got the idea for the song from the cuckoos popping out of their doors to sing when he was rehearsing in his apartment. The cuckoo clock you hear in the song is from his home collection.

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