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Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Aces Back to Back

Robert Spencer By

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Step right up. Enclosed are four strong Kirk entries, too long unavailable: Left & Right (1969), Rahsaan Rahsaan (1970), Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle (1973), and Other Folks' Music (1976). Any admirer of the raw-boned adventurousness, raucous joy and staggering virtuosity that were Kirk trademarks will find them all in abundance here, although these albums have been hitherto overlooked in Atlantic's CD reissue program. Joel Dorn, the intrepid founder of 32Jazz and former Atlantic producer extraordinaire, takes up the slack in this important follow-up to Dog Years in the Fourth Ring, Dorn’s earlier set of Rahsaan reissues.

Rahsaan had a mutual admiration society with Charles Mingus (see "Kingus Mingus" on Left & Right, and his recordings share some of the same feel: exuberant slapdash mingling with a musical precision that is beyond extraordinary. Kirk lectures, hectors, mutters, and cries out, amid hoots, whistles, crashes-and Mingusian over-the-head playing by underrated sidemen, notably Richard Williams on trumpet ( Other Folks' Music ), Leroy Jenkins on violin ( Rahsaan Rahsaan ), and Dick Griffin on trombone ( Left & Right ).

The music is uniformly great, but really, Kirk had to be seen to be believed. On Rahsaan, Rahsaan, for example, the album accompanying his unveiling of that name that came to him in a dream, he weaves a medley out of a Dvorak strain, "Sentimental Journey," Rodgers and Hart's "Lover," and his own "In Monument." The music here is fine: the melodies mesh well, and without reading the liner notes or otherwise knowing about the miracle that was Kirk, a listener might miss the fact that one man is playing all these reeds at the same time. But Kirk's virtuosity was so far beyond shallow gimmickry that he never lets empty pyrotechnics get in the way of the music. The medley works musically – the only thing ultimately important to him.

Indeed, that medley is emblematic of the whole long, glorious trip captured on these four discs: Rahsaan was always a teacher in his music, and paid generous tribute to his music forbears without ever descending to slavish mimicry. Alongside a bumper crop of originals on these sides, Kirk gives us Mingus' "I X Love," Quincy Jones' "Quintessence," Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" and "Satin Doll," Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," and more. It's as much of a course in jazz history – strained through Rahsaan's uniquely beguiling sensibility – as any Sun Ra record.

And still the highlights are found in Kirk’s own compositions. The 21-minute "Saxophone Concerto," the centerpiece of Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle, showcases Kirk's nonpareil tenor playing. His use of circular breathing is unique in that rather than resort to whirling, repetitive figures, a la Pharoah Sanders or Evan Parker, he weaves an endlessly inventive melodic line. The liner notes contain Dorn's notice to Kenny G that Rahsaan held a note longer than the G-man; that may be, but the "Saxophone Concerto" is abundant evidence that whether or not he held a note longer, he without any doubt held it better. He plays a warehouse full of other instruments on these discs, but this track alone is worth the purchase price. Left & Right and Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle also feature Kirk's deft string arrangements.

Arranger, composer, virtuoso, prophet, genius. There are some discs that are beyond the usual run. Virtually every one of Kirk's falls into that category, but these four have the added distinction of being vintage Kirk. This is music that mattered, and still matters.


Title: Aces Back to Back | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: 32 Records

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