When I seek joy, I often turn to the work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Columbus, Ohio’s multi-instrumentalized jazz genius seemed to have direct and immediate access to the full range of human emotions (often, when he was at his best, on display on a single recording), and be reliably alive in the moment whether on stage in the studio. When an old friend who’s just getting into jazz inquired after something new (he’s been cutting his teach on Blue Note hard bop), I knew just where to turn. We were meeting for coffee, he still listens to CDs, so I decided to begin a “Great Albums Series” for him with two-on-one Kirk mix disc.
It’s not that easy to pick the best two Kirk records to start someone on his aural learning journey. Certainly, few would argue with such stellar and unique recordings as Rip, Rig, and Panic or The Inflated Tear; one could even make a fan for life from the man’s sideman sessions, like The Jaki Byard Experience (its versions of “Evidence” and “Memories of You” alone vault both leader and accompanist to jazz Valhalla) or Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah. However, I chose the two records I turn two most: 1961’s audacious We Free Kings (Kirk a mere 26) and 1964’s sui generis flute tour de force, I Talk with the Spirits–on which he does, if spirits really do exist.
We Free Kings is both the ultimate proof Kirk’s playing of tenor sax, flute, stritch, manzello, and siren (just those on this record, and up to three at once) was mastery and sound attack, not gimmickry, and a complete display of his many strengths. To wit? A fondness for and deep knowledge of both old and new styles (here, demonstrated on the title cut, which takes the old holiday chestnut into Traneland as if that were the most logical idea in the world). A knack for catchy, penetrating, soulful original compositions (the eternal “Three for The Festival”) and daring explorations of the jazz repertoire (Bird’s “Blues for Alice”). That previously-stated ability to tap into the deepest (see the aptly named “The Haunted Melody) and the most buoyant (see “Some Kind of Love) human emotions. The ability to consistently surprise: the sudden, virtuosic shifts from one instrument to the next (check the stop-time flute passage on “Three for the Festival”!); the astonishing ability to wring profound blues out of a flute; the spirited vocal interjections at key inspired moments. That should be enough to convince, but his backing combo, especially the underrated Charlie Persip on drums, sticks with Kirk through every hairpin turn.
You may have noticed I used the word “flute” three times in the last ‘graph. I am no fan of that instrument, but in Kirk’s hands it is a magic wand–on I Talk to the Spirits, it’s all the famed multi-instrumentalist plays. You may have noticed that I called We Free Kings audacious, and it is: Kirk’s confidence, at 26, in going there in numerous ways, in JazzWorld 1961 (think about it), is astounding. However, the word might be better applied to this album. Kirk dares to keep us locked in, surprised, moved, and even rocked for the full duration of a record with only the most notoriously light of instruments. Not only that, but he bets he can make Barbara Streisand (“People,” from Funny Face) and Joyce Kilmer (“Trees”? Yes, “Trees”!) stand firm and tall next to not only his own indelible originals (try playing “Serenade to a Cuckoo” only once, then avoid a week-long earworming–I double-fuckin’-DARE ya!) but also canonical offerings from Clifford Brown, John Lewis, and Brecht-Weill. And he cleans out the house on that. Again, the backup is superb. Drummers? Rah could pick ’em: Walter Perkins is all ’bout it on a very eccentrically accented session. The piano’s manned by the estimable Horace Parlan, whose elegance anchors Kirk’s wonderfully wild ideas. There is no album like this is the annals of jazz, my friend needs it, and so do you.
Just gotta say, I love Rahsaan so much primarily because he has serious fun–he’s soulful and mischievous–and he loves both the old and new, the disposable and the essential. I strive for the same, though I don’t really have to work at it. It seems the nature of our time here, and I’ve always heard Kirk as–in a nod to my fellow jazz fiend Charles–a sensei. I’m confident you will, too.
Note: if you are able, please check out the great young filmmaker Adam Kahan’s insightful Kirk documentary, The Case of the Three-Sides Dream.