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Roland Kirk: Limelight/Verve Albums

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk
With the exception of Sun Ra, few jazz artists were more visually arresting than Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Blind from adolescence, Kirk wore dark glasses and often performed with multiple reed instruments hung around his neck or lodged in his mouth. Uninitiated listeners automatically assumed Kirk's music wouldn't be easy to grasp or likable. The funny thing about Kirk is that his music was always gentle, whimsical, lyrical and engaging. All those instruments around his neck? He often played them in harmony to create the sound of a reed section.

Kirk's three albums for Limelight, recorded between 1964 and '65, and one for Verve in 1967 were superb examples of his puckish sense of humor, imagination and playing prowess. During this three-year period, Kirk was exploring his own works and coming to grips with pop-rock's baffling success. Jack Tracy, Limelight's producer, was of the same mind. When I interviewed Jack for my book, Why Jazz Happened, Jack talked about his struggle at Mercury during this period to remain relevant at a time when his bosses were demanding he go out and find four musicians with long hair. Limelight was a jazz subsidiary of Mercury. The youth culture was abrupt and absolute.

Mosaic has just released Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums on four 180-gram vinyl LPs. What's fascinating is that each one is a singular expression—featuring a completely different mood and instrumental approach by Kirk. What we learn is that Kirk always defied cliché, even when competing against his last release. The sound of these remastered discs—the first Mosaic set to be pressed at Chad Kassem's Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kansas—is warm, clear and detail-rich, with woody low notes and rounded highs.

Kirk's first album for Limelight was I Talk With the Spritis, recorded in September 1964. Here, Kirk plays flute, alto flute and African wooden flute. Bobby Scott produced the session with Jack Tracy supervising. What's interesting here—as is the case on all of the albums in the set—is Kirk's choice on piano, an instrument that was clearly fundamental to Kirk's improvisation. On this album, Kirk was backed by Horace Parlan (one of my favorites), who added a classy soulfulness on each track. Of particular note is Kirk's The Business Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, a slow, raucous blues.

On Rip, Rig and Panic, the second Limelight release recorded in January 1965, Kirk's pianist was Jacki Byard, and the results are astonishing, like a flock of birds taking off for flight. They are joined by Richard Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. No Tonic Pres—a tribute to Lester “Pres" Young that lacks a tonic or key—also takes a stroll on John Coltrane's turf. My other favorite is the loping Once in a While, on which Kirk plays tenor sax and manzello and stritch all at once, brilliantly tagging The Man That Got Away.

Slightly Latin from November 1965 was produced by Hal Mooney and embraces a few pop-rock hits of the day, like Walk on By, It's All in the Game and Lennon and McCartney's And I Love Her. Kirk's interpretation of the latter is one of the finest jazz interpretations of a Beatles hit. But this is hardly the Latin of George Shearing's albums. The rhythm is mildly Latin, but Kirk bends each song around his approach, turning radio hits into sober sculptures.

On Now Please Don't Cry, Beautiful Edith, the Verve album recorded in May 1967, Kirk plays Hal David and Burt Bacharach's Alfie but slyly adds Sonny Rollins' Alfie's Theme at the end, almost as a political dig. On this album Kirk is backed by pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. Once again, Kirk plays multiple instruments, particularly at the end, when he blows in harmony, emulating a reed section. The album's high point is Stompin Grounds, a skippy original.

I don't normally listen to vinyl. Most of my albums are in storage and they're just not as convenient as iTunes when I'm working. For example, while listening to the Kirk set yesterday, the phone rang and I kept trying to figure out why I couldn't pause the music. I quickly realized it was the turntable, so I leaned way over the desk, raised the tone arm and answered the cordless phone with the other hand. The Pete Rose dive for the platter was still worth it.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums (Mosaic), a four 180-gram LP set, here. You can also sample tracks from the box there.

JazzWax clip: Here's Roland Kirk in 1967 playing My Ship, which he recorded on I Talk With the Spirits, and Creole Love Call...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.

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