Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Brotherman in the Fatherland

Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Brotherman in the Fatherland

This recording of a 1972 concert, originally broadcast on German radio and TV – and apparently the stuff of legend among tape-collectors and bootleggers – captures the great jazz maverick just three years before the massive stroke that partially paralysed him and only five years before the one that killed him. All the same, it finds Kirk at the height of his powers, undiminished, displaying the enormous vitality and commitment he brought to his playing up until the day he died.

In fact, it’s pretty much the perfect Kirk gig, ticking all the boxes you’d expect from a showcase performance.

Multi-instrumental prowess? Check. It’s all here: tenor sax, flute, nose flute, whistles, clarinet, manzello, stritch. And, of course, being a Kirk gig, you get several of them played simultaneously, as on the medieval-sounding “Seasons”, with its self-harmonised double-flute melodies.

Dizzying displays of circular breathing? Check. Just listen to the swinging hard-bop opener, “Like Sonny”, where his muscular tenor-blowing gets stuck in an impossible vortex, chasing its own tail into crazed oblivion. Or listen to the monumentally long note held at the end of “Pedal Up”, with multiple instruments swirling around each other to create a dirgey drone.

Jazzy interpretations of popular song? Check. “Make It With You” comes on like a sleazy blues, while his bouncy, soul-jazz take on “My Girl” includes flute and ragged, heartfelt vocals. Both are perfect examples of Kirk’s penchant for combining the popular with the avant-garde, bringing in as many aspects of late 20th century Afro-American culture as possible to create the full black experience.

Idiosyncratic technique? Check. Dig the grumbling, humming vocal underneath the flute in “Serenade to a Cuckoo”: that trademark Kirk duality that influenced so many in the 60s, from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson to Soft Machine associate Lyn Dobson. And dig the way he counts it in with an outburst of pure vocal gibberish – like a jazz Yosemite Sam – and the perfect use of a single blast on the whistle as high-energy punctuation to bring in the piano solo. In every instance, it could only be Roland Kirk.

The band is in fiery form, too. Joe ‘Habao’ Taxidor provides thoughtful and joyous percussion throughout, with his tambourine lifting every tune it appears in. Ron Burton’s up-tempo, hard-driving piano solos touch on McCoy Tyner territory more than once, and Richie Goldberg’s light, poly-rhythmic snare work is a relentless joy.

All of this is probably enough to recommend this album to the Kirk fanatic and the newbie alike, but there’s more. As if to prove his place in the great jazz lineage of horn-slinging macho visionaries, Kirk concludes the set with blazing versions of two tunes forever associated with the tenor man to end them all: John Coltrane. First is a scorching run through Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”; and then a 17-minute, supremely swinging “Blue Trane” that’s enough to even wake up the infuriatingly restrained German audience who’ve spent the previous hour or so politely applauding at the end of each vein-busting, soul-wrenching number. (Check out the beginning of “My Girl”, where Kirk tries to get the crowd going by asking, “Are you ready?”, to which a waggish bandmate replies “Uh-uh, they ain’t ready.”)

On the strength of these performances, it’s hard to understand why critics and fans allowed themselves to be distracted by Kirk’s peculiar garb, his light-hearted stage-antics and minstrel-like approach to performance, assuring that he never quite received the attention or recognition he deserved during his own lifetime. With luck, releases like this – despite the unnecessarily comic and dubiously xenophobic album title – are helping to change all that. The Rahsaanaissance continues.

RATING 7 / 10