Roland Kirk was arguably the most exciting soloist the jazz world has ever seen. Blind since childhood, Kirk developed a unique sensitivity to sound that he parlayed into all sorts of interesting ideas, most notably the ability to play two or three instruments simultaneously. For a while the vaudeville nature of this trick overshadowed his prodigious talents as a soloist. He was capable of great tenderness as well as bursts of aggressive lines and knew how to construct a solo better than many. This compilation captures four of his earliest dates.
Introducing Roland Kirk from 1960 is the first time that most people heard Kirk, and much of the recording date is devoted to presenting his ability to play multiple instruments(even Jack Tracy the recording director said that he liked the way that Kirk played, but couldn't pass up the marketability of a guy who could play three horns at once.) Much of the opener, "The Call" begins with three horns, followed by a solo that starts on tenor, moves to tenor and manzello, then switches to manzello. Kirk is paired in the front line with another horn, something that would rarely happen in the future once extra instruments seemed superfluous, but the gifted Ira Sullivan offers a nice mainstream contrast to Kirk's noisier approach. However, the material and the sidemen don't seem quite up to Kirk's talent, and there's no question Kirk is still learning to marshall his many approaches into something more cohesive. An enjoyable session, but merely a glimpse of the greatness that would follow.
Kirk's Work from 1961 is good, but not much different than any other organ jazz record at the time: plenty of soul, blues, and the occasional ballad, all buoyed by the burly organ of Jack McDuff. Ever the noisemaker himself, Kirk seemed to revel in the capacity for great walls of chords on the heavier tunes; even the gentle rinky-dink sound McDuff provides behind the flute on "Funk Underneath." Throughout the record Kirk employs multiple horn for hard bop riffs and the group blazes their way through "Makin' Whoopee" at a scandalous pace. Kirk never came back to the organ group setting, perhaps feeling like it was too limiting (however it would have been fascinating to hear Kirk and Larry Young make a record when both were at the height of their considerable powers.) Like Introducing, Kirk's Work is a decent album, yet the best was to come once Kirk began recording for Mercury.
We Free Kings is essential Kirk. Astonishingly, it was recorded just over a month after the session with McDuff. For the first time Kirk's multiple horn playing is used for dramatic and stylistic effect and rarely seems like a gimmick, and he is bolstered by sidemen that are capable of following him wherever he wants to go. Two songs are among Kirk's finest performances. "Three For the Festival," one of Kirk's signature compositions, kicks off with a rousing three horn riff followed by a bluesy flute solo. "You Did It, You Did It" is another flute tune in which Kirk growls, wails, and spits through his flute during the solo with reckless abandon. Although these are the two killers (as well as cementing Kirk's status as one of the best jazz flautists), the album is full of stellar tracks that cover almost every possible style imaginable as Kirk shows the influence of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sidney Bechet, often in the same recording. On "We Free Kings" Kirk pays homage to Coltrane's modal explorations on "My Favorite Things" on the familiar carol. "We Free Kings" is rounded out by a wide range of styles, from the R&B workout "A Sack Full of Soul" to the bop of Charlie Parker's "Blues For Alice" to the ballroom stylings of "Some Kind of Love." At times unhinged, at others arrestingly soft and tender, We Free Kings nevertheless feels like a united effort, and one of the most entertaining of jazz albums.
Domino from 1962 is almost as good and continues the run of terrific albums for the Mercury label. The pairing of Kirk and Andrew Hill is going to be tough to resist for many and they don't disappoint on any of the tracks. Kirk has some terrific originals from the rhythmically off kilter "Meeting on Termini's Corner" which would have sunk many a lesser musician with a start and stop head, to the fun "A Stritch in Time" and the rambunctious three horn riffing on "3-in-1 Without The Oil." The covers get a severe Kirk makeover. The title track is a waltz that begins with the head played on flute before switching to manzello for the solo, then back to a noisy finish on the flute (and the first appearance of the nose flute.) While "Time" receives a haunting flute treatment. Kirk has become adept at creating a performance by using the various combinations and sequences of instruments at his disposal. Hill's playing has the knotty chords that land at unexpected times that he would trademark on his later Blue Note work. The four tracks with Wynton Kelly at the chair are more conventional, but no less captivating.
Kirk would go one from these dates to create more remarkable work over the next few years. Hopefully Avid will continue to release more compilations of his material.
CD1: The Call; Soul Station; Our Waltz; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Spirit Girl; Jack the Ripper;
Three For Dizzy; Makin’ Whoopee; Funk Underneath; Kirk’s Work; Doin’ the Sixty Eight; Too
Late Now; Skater’s Waltz. CD2: Three for the Festival; Moon Song; A Sack Full of Soul; The
Haunted Melody; Blues For Alice; We Free Kings; You Did It, You Did It; Some Kind of Love;
My Delight; Domino; Meeting on Termini’s Corner; Time; Lament; A Stritch in Time; 3-in1
Without the Oil; Get Out of Town; Rolando; I Believe in You; E.D.
Roland Kirk: tenor sax, manzello, stritch, flute, siren; Ira Sullivan: tenor sax, trumpet
(CD1#1-6); William Burton: piano (CD1#1-6); Don Garrett: bass (CD1#1-6); Sonny Brown:
drums (CD1#1-6); Jack McDuff: organ (CD1#7-13); Joe Benjamin: bass (CD1#7-13); Art
Taylor: drums (CD1#7-13); Richard Wyands: piano (CD2#3-5, 9); Art Davis: bass (CD2#3-
5,9); Charlie Persip: drums (CD2#1-9); Hank Jones: piano (CD2#1-2, 6-8); Wendell Marshall:
bass (CD2#1-2, 6-8); Andrew Hill: piano, celeste (CD2#10-15); Wynton Kelly: piano
(CD2#16-19); Vernon Martin: bass; Henry Duncan: drums (CD2#10-15); Roy Haynes: drums