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The Boston Phoenix Captain Kirk

The "Dog Years" of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

By Richard C. Walls

JANUARY 5, 1998:  Dog Years in the Fourth Ring (32 Jazz), a potpourri offering of the late multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1936-1977) is much better than one might expect considering that its first two discs are made up of previously unreleased live recordings from the early '60s and early '70s made by an ardent fan. And disc three of the collection is Kirk's '71 Atlantic album Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata in toto, a forgotten session that the liner notes here rather boldly point out "was his worst selling album for the label." But the sound quality of the bootlegs is generally good, Kirk has been caught in fine fettle with his range well-represented, and Strata, though a curio, is worth the revival.

Kirk himself is a curio worth reviving. During the limelight period of his career, which lasted from 1960's Introducing Roland Kirk until his death in '77, he was the Rodney Dangerfield of jazz -- while his awesome technical facility was often admired, real respect was just as often withheld. Kirk's signature sound, wrought from playing three instruments simultaneously -- tenor sax, manzello, and stritch (the last two's names alone invite ridicule) -- was seen as a gimmick, a perception fueled by his use of such auxiliary devices as nose flute, whistle, siren, and anything else that could be pressed into service. Then there was his fondness, extensively developed over the years, for circular breathing, which allowed him to hold a note for up to two hours sans pause. Nor did it help that he eventually became eerily bicameral, prone to playing two tonally related but distinct melodies at once.

The tendency was to take Kirk with a grain of salt; his technical prowess could not be denied but neither could his general nuttiness. Actually, that was just part of the problem -- if eccentricity alone were grounds for dismissal then half the jazz pantheon would be wiped out. What raised even more suspicions among certain critics and listeners was that Kirk was a consummate entertainer, and a entertainer of a certain showboating and vulgar bent at that. Listening to the array of live performance on Dog Years one is struck by the expertise with which he manipulates the audience, the way all those held notes and long, swirling, pauseless lines and double melodies don't deepen the emotional content of his music but rather reach out and grab the listener by the collar like so many. . . stunts. A highlight of this sort of thing is "I Say a Little Prayer." a 13-minute raucous medley-in-disguise recorded in Boston in '72, which segues from gospel to avant-garde, from Warwick/Bacharach pop to Coltrane homage. But this routine is already available on '69's Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic) in a live at Newport rendition that is pretty much note-for-note (or at least gesture for gesture) the same as the Boston one -- an indication of how well-choreographed some of Kirk's wildman moves actually were.

So Kirk was a little shallow. When Coltrane or Dolphy, say, put you through the wringer it was for your own good -- history was being made, boundaries stretched, one's emotional and intellectual capabilities upgraded. But when Kirk launched an assault and disconnected from his rhythm section in quadruple-timing ecstasy, it just sounded like fun (and those rhythm sections, not incidentally, are famously lacking in individual voices -- there was only one star in the Rahsaan show). The question then remains how much you value fun.

Kirk was also like a sponge, someone who soaked up the tradition -- years before tradition-soaking became the standard mode -- then squeezed out his homages with his customarily furious joy. He could be a sensitive interpreter of melody when he wanted -- check out "Once in a While" on Rip, Rig & Panic (Emarcy), or the way on Dog Years his metallic-sounding manzello adds a seductive dose of bitters to "I Remember Clifford." But more often the Bechet-to-Trane touchstones just seem another aspect of Kirk's cleverness.

As for Strata, it features mostly solo Kirk with no overdubs, sounding variously like a small big band or a free-form collective, seemingly in good humor and full of appealingly simple melodic ideas. Most of Dog Years, in fact, is highly appealing. If Kirk's music doesn't wound or challenge like the greatest jazz, still it's impressively exuberant, energetically eclectic and, with its pervasive aura of history-ransacking voraciousness, intriguingly post- modern.

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