Archive for May, 2010

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

May 19, 2010

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a master musician.  He was also magical and unafraid of humor.  He played a wide variety of instruments, often several at a time.  Yet he didn’t like being labeled as a “gimmick performer.”  He was a musician through and through.

I just finished an extensive study of the man.  This included playing his recordings (mostly on vinyl) and reading the liner notes.

He was born August 7, 1936.  He probably wasn’t born blind.  There’s a story he lost his eyesight at the age of two, due to a mistake by a nurse.  He started playing music as a child and kept at it.

His career included a stint with Charles Mingus and many dates as a leader.  He was a good composer.  His music included such titles as Bright Moments, The Inflated Tear, Volunteered Slavery and Portrait of  Those Beautiful Ladies.  His instruments included flute, harmonica, stritch, manzello (which he called a Moon Zellar), alto sax, melodica, piano, lyricon, sirens, whistles, nose flutes, bells and many others.  His primary ax was the tenor sax.

I also enjoyed the impressionistic biography by John Kruth: BRIGHT MOMENTS The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  It was published ten years ago, in 2000.  There were a lot of good stories, quotations and appreciations contained therein.

I also recently saw some live performances on video.  In one from Milan, Italy in November 1962 you can see him interact with pianist Tete Monontoliu (who was also blind).  They had a pre-arranged maneuver that when Kirk wanted Montiliu to stop playing, he walked over to him and took his hands off the keyboard.  At one point, you can see drummer Kenny Clarke “lay out” and just watch the one-man horn section in amazement.

On the same DVD, there was another performance from Prague in the Czech Republic in October, 1967.  Here, you get to see Mr. Kirk play the nose flute!  He was really something!  I wish I’d got to see him live.

I likely would have if he hadn’t died at age 42.  He’d recovered from a stroke and managed to keep playing for a few years.  His intensity and technical vibrancy were somewhat diminished.  Yet his inventiveness and his soul kept going.  A second stroke took him, too soon, all too soon.

Update, 2016:

I just saw the solid new documentary about Rahsaan,  The Case of the Three-Sided Dream. Track it down now or wait for the DVD. It’s still playing in theatres, here and there.