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Seven years ago at a jam session in Washington, D.C.'s Twins Lounge, the house band pianist called Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Bright Moments". To his dismay, none of the four tenor sax players, who had probably memorized hundreds of songs between them, knew this tune, one of the most dynamic and beautiful in the jazz repertoire. Such is the unawareness of one of the greatest performing and composing talents in the history of jazz. Hopefully John Kruth's new biography of Kirk will go a long way to bridge the gap.
What comes across loud and clear in Kruth's book is the extent of Kirk's talent and creativity, his dedication to tradition and innovation. Many saw, and some dismissed Kirk as a novelty act - the big, blind man playing three saxophones at once, playing flute through his nose, using everything from cuckoo clocks to sirens in his music. Kruth points out again and again what they missed - a musician fascinated with the possibilities of sound. Beyond that, Kirk was a master on all his horns, including tenor sax, flute and clarinet. He gladly took responsibility to carry forth the legacies of saxophone giants Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Don Byas. He gloried in playing and composing in ALL styles of "Black Classical Music" (the term he preferred to "jazz"), from New Orleans to avant-garde. He probably knew the tradition better than anyone else of his era.
These aren't just Kruth's assertions. He's gathered a vast oral history of Kirk, including former bandmates, other musicians, producers, DJ's, promoters, critics, Rahsaan's wife, friends and artists from other spheres, such as Ken Kesey and Alan Ginsburg. You may be surprised to find praise from Jimi Hendrix, who idolized and hoped to collaborate with Kirk.
As a long-time fan of Kirk I didn't need to be convinced. But I came away from Bright Moments with a much greater understanding of what Kirk was doing musically, the breadth, depth and cost of his contribution. I also found the chapters on his campaign to get more jazz onto television and his arrest for alleged airplane highjacking just fascinating. I also learned for the first time about his tenacious return to performing after a stroke at age 39.Record producer Joel Dorn said of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "In terms of modern jazz he is such a singular figure that when the world understands what it was he did he'll finally get the attention he deserved". John Kruth's Bright Moments goes a long way toward bringing about that understanding, and does so joyfully.