Roland Kirk: Kirks Work

[9 September 2007]

By John Bergstrom

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Decades before Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen with his multi-necked electric guitars, there was Roland Kirk. He would appear in concert as he does on the cover of Kirk’s Work, with several reed instruments slung around his neck. Some of these instruments were invented by Kirk himself; others were rare. Many were modified by Kirk so that he could play more than one simultaneously, fingering one instrument with his left hand and one with his right. He did this because he’d envisioned it in a dream. What’s more, he was blind.

Even in a golden age of jazz populated with characters, Kirk’s act was often viewed as a gimmick, a schtick. Kirk’s outsize personality and dress sense, along with his fondness for punctuating solos with whistle blasts (he called them “sirens”), only encouraged this perception. But really he was a serious artist and composer, playing with Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, and many others.

Recorded and released in 1961, Kirk’s Work was one of Kirk’s first albums as a bandleader. Kirk was a relative unknown among the hard-bop scene, and his persona had yet to dominate perception of him. Also, he had yet to add “Rashaan” to his name; he did this later in his career, after the name came to him in a dream, of course! Kirk does employ a small arsenal of instruments, including flute and his trademark strich and manzello. For most of his solos, though, he sticks to tenor sax, and the album is tighter, more straightforward, and more compact than much of his later work. It’s considered one of his classics, and rightly so.

Four of the seven selections are Kirk compositions, and constitute the best of the album. The slinky blues of “Three For Dizzy”, punctuated by multi-horn bursts from Kirk (“three” refers to the number of instruments Kirk plays on the track), feels like the soundtrack for a lost hard-boiled detective caper. Jack McDuff, a Prestige mainstay, lays down some groovy, purring rifs on the Hammond while bassist Joe Benjamin lopes along steadily. “Doin’ the Sixty-Eight”, another blues number, doubles the tempo and features some lightning-fast soloing from McDuff.

The title track is an excellent representation of the scope and power of Kirk’s musical personality. In just under four minutes, it goes from a sly, subtle prelude to the strident march of a theme, to Kirk’s most inspired, melodic, squawking, hard-bop soloing of the entire set. With a patented “siren” burst, he turns the floor over to McDuff, adding harmonic color to the organist’s solo. Then the whole thing shifts back into the melody from the prelude and thunders to an end.

The real selling point of Kirk’s Work, however, is Kirk’s “Funk Underneath”. The sole track to feature Kirk taking leads on flute, it begins with a slow, bluesy melody before McDuff comes in almost subliminally. About midway through, the tempo shifts to doubletime just as Kirk offers another of his singular sounds—scat “singing” through the flute in addition to playing it. This technique foreshadows the dreaded “mouth box” guitar effect of the ‘70s, but actually adds to the far-out vibe rather than just sounding ridiculous. McDuff takes the tempo back down for one progression, then it doubles again as Kirk joins in on sax/manzello/“siren” before switching back to flute for the ending. There’s nothing overtly “funk” about it, yet it’s undeniably funky, the sort of track that must have helped inspire Prince to write “Get Off” decades later.

The three non-originals reveal Kirk to be a fan of popular music, with a jaunty “Makin’ Whoopee” and a tender “Too Late Now”. Proving himself to be ever the individual thinker, he closes the album with a wonderfully energetic, hard-bop version of Charles Emile Waldteufel’s 1882 popular composition “The Skaters”. Here titled “Skater’s Waltz”, it’s actually rendered in 4/4 time, and a great time it is. These tracks show that Kirk could interpret the pop of previous generations with as much panache as Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane.

And that’s ultimately what’s unique—and great—about Kirk’s Work: Despite the multiple instruments, “sirens”, what some later called tricks or gimmicks, it presents Kirk more or less as a buttoned-down, dark suit-wearing cool cat rather than the flashy eccentric of his later years. Also, the backing is excellent, with drummer Arthur Taylor in particular adding some inventive hi-hat work. Even if you already own this album, you’ll want to pick up this bonus track-free reissue for the excellent sound quality; you can literally hear the depressions of McDuff’s organ keys. It’s a great way to experience one of the sleeper essentials of the hard-bop era.

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