Rahsaan Roland Kirk - woodwinds, flute, vocals; Sonelius Smith - piano, vocals; Dick Griffin - trombone, vocals; Charles McGhee - trumpet, vocals; Henry Pearson - bass, vocals; Jerry Griffin - drums, vocals; Joe Habad Texidor - percussion, vocals
Rahsaan Roland Kirk lost his sight when he was two years old, but this had little effect on him pursuing music. While attending the Ohio School For The Blind, he set the groundwork that would eventually lead to him mastering over 40 instruments. Kirk developed a reputation for being aggressively outspoken on racial and political issues and remained eccentric throughout his musical career. Always in search of new sounds, Kirk not only learned how to play multiple instruments simultaneously, but also actively experimented in reconstructing new instruments by combining parts from existing ones. Playing multiple instruments, which became part of Kirk's signature sound, required mastering a circular breathing technique. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note as long as he pleased, but he could solo at high speeds for virtually unlimited lengths of time. Kirk was also an influential flute player, developing new techniques such as singing or humming at the same time or playing the nose flute and a standard model simultaneously.
These eccentricities, as well as his embracing of contemporary pop, soul and rock compositions often alienated him from the jazz community. Although firmly planted within a jazz framework, Kirk often mixed in diverse elements like classical with ragtime or traditional Dixieland with contemporary R & B. Like Bob Dylan when he plugged in an electric guitar and Miles Davis when he embraced electronic instrumentation, purists were often in an uproar over Kirk's irreverence toward tradition. Some initially thought this multi-instrumentalism was a gimmick, but upon hearing him perform as a one-man horn section and actually achieving true chords through multiple horns, few were unimpressed.
One of Kirk's most provocative and engaging albums was his 1969 release, Volunteered Slavery, a half live/half studio affair that came closest to capturing his iconoclastic nature. Jazz, post-bop blues and chanted poetry are all featured on this diverse album, as well as two brilliant reinterpretations of contemporary pop songs. On Stevie Wonder's "Ma Cherie Amour" and Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Say a Little Prayer," Kirk retained the melodic beauty of the originals, while adding new layers of originality. On these covers in particular, Kirk proved that even the most accessible pop melodies could fuel improvisation that was as moving as the intricate modal explorations of John Coltrane, who he also pays tribute on the album. More so than on any of his previous albums, Volunteered Slavery proved that Kirk was indeed a master musician who defied categorization.
This 1971 performance by Kirk and his group, then going under the moniker "Rahsaan Roland Kirk and His Vibration Society," was recorded live at Fillmore East on a triple bill opening for Tower Of Power and Santana. With the majority of this set (the first of two performances that evening) focused on material from the Volunteered Slavery album, this is a perfect introduction to this iconoclastic musician that will satisfy longtime fans and bourgeoning listeners alike.
The set begins with a truly extraordinary 18-minute workout on Kirk's reinterpretation of "I Say A Little Prayer." Originally reworked into a sort of eulogy for Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, this highly extended performance combines all the rage, beauty and sensitivity of the album version and increases it exponentially. Incredibly daring and ambitious for an opening number, the entire range of Kirk's emotional architecture can be heard in this performance, as the group glides from one peak to the next until they eventually achieve a state approaching religious ecstasy.
The next number, also a pop song reinterpretation, is equally compelling, as the group explores "Just My Imagination," which at the time of this recording was a #1 hit for The Temptations. It begins with lovely interplay between pianist Sonelius Smith and bassist Henry Pearson, who establish an infectious groove. Soon a beautiful dialogue ensues between Kirk's lead vocal-like flute and Dick Griffin and Charles McGhee's background singer-like horns, which is so compelling, listeners might wish for this never to end! Pianist Smith also deserves special credit here, as his piano playing is particularly lovely throughout.
Following Kirk's introductions of the musicians, he guides them into a gently swinging blues that showcases his inventive soloing and the way he creatively utilizes the full range of his horn. To conclude the set, the provocative opening riff from Kirk signals the beginning of "Volunteered Slavery," with the musicians gradually joining in. With its Beat-style chanted poetry and post-bop blues ethos, this is another engaging performance. During the first chant section, Kirk goes off with a monologue that briefly celebrates boxer Muhammad Ali and calls for action to free political activist Angela Davis, who was imprisoned at the time. This composition reflects the turbulent times and is even mildly confrontational; with Kirk well aware of the power of music to alter the way people think and effect social change. Kirk also encourages the audience to reinforce the rhythm by clapping. Although initially challenged, the Fillmore East audience does get the hang of it, but when they do, the band dramatically launches into the second section, an ecstatic jam that unfortunately wasn't captured in its entirety. Still, what remains displays this band at its best and if one listens carefully, quotes from The Beatle's mega-hit "Hey Jude" can be heard emanating from Kirk's horn within this wondrous jam.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk's artistic vision is impossible to categorize, which is one of the reasons his music polarized so many critics and his brilliance has been largely overlooked. This is music that is both beautiful and edgy, with layers of irony and irreverence in the mix. But more than anything, this is an exuberant and joyful performance that clearly conveys Kirk's almost maniacal need to push his music beyond all boundaries.