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Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums


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Several years ago when this writer was looking for rarities to include in the column Jazz From the Vinyl Junkyard, the chances for the medium to make a huge comeback seemed to be slim at best. Fast forward and it seems that vinyl is the new black, with efforts to market it to a fresh and younger audience. The availability of simple to operate and affordable turntables aids the process. And until just recently, Stereophile magazine had an entire column, The Entry Level, devoted to putting together a great system on a budget.

Further stoking this trend, Blue Note made a huge commitment for their 75th anniversary by launching a vinyl reissue campaign of a hundred titles to be released over the next year and a half. Concord Music Group is soon to follow suit with a vinyl reissue series celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Prestige label. Much of this reissued music will be familiar to seasoned collectors and might even get some coverage in the press from a purely musical standpoint. The aim here too is to discuss the performance, as this will be valuable to newcomers looking to decide on the musical value of a given release. But for more seasoned collectors, critical analysis will also include notes on pressings, remastering quality, packaging, etc.

Our maiden voyage will focus on the 4 LP set Roland Kirk: The Limelight/Verve Albums, a recent release by Mosaic Records. Here we have a company that started their reissue business with vinyl boxed sets and even after switching over to the compact disc, has continued to dabble in the vinyl business. Over the past several years they have put an even stronger emphasis on quality in terms of the presentation and pressings. This Kirk set is important for many reasons, not the least being it is the first Mosaic set to be pressed at the critically acclaimed QRP plant in Kansas. More on the benefits of this decision as we delve into the music.

In a nutshell, the original albums featured here include the three albums Kirk recorded for Mercury Record's Limelight subsidiary, namely I Talk With the Spirits, Rig, Rig & Panic, and Slightly Latin. The concluding set, Now Please Don't Cry, Beautiful Edith, was produced by Creed Taylor for Verve. Sadly to say, these albums are all but impossible to find on CD these days. The boxed set compiling all of Kirk's Mercury sides is out-of-print as well. The only title obtainable with a little effort is the Verve album, which can be found on a Japanese reissue. This information alone makes this boxed set a no-brainer purchase.

Making our way to the music, I Talk With the Spirits is a September 1964 session produced by Bobby Scott that would feature Kirk solely with his collection of various flutes. Interestingly enough, key sidemen here include pianist Horace Parlan and drummer Walter Perkins, both of whom provided vital support on Booker Ervin's 1963 set for Prestige, Exultation. Although a concept is at play here, the music is anything but cold and calculating. In fact, the best known piece of the date, "Serenade to a Cuckoo," is a wonderful showcase for Kirk's talents, first on regular flute and then African flute. The cuckoo clock sound effect that opens the tune is also pure Kirk in humor and spirit.

As he would do throughout his later career, Kirk had a way of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He does this by taking marginal pop tunes and making them into viable musical vehicles. He does that here with "People," the tune forever associated with Barbara Streisand. His flute and guttural voicings take it far and away from its saccharine foundation. Other highlights include the ballad masterpiece "My Ship" and the romping blues original, "A Quote from Clifford Brown." On the latter piece, we get a choice duet as Walter Perkins plays his bent cymbal with a mallet while Kirk slap tongues and conjures up all sorts of his own percussive sounds.

This session was recorded at Nola Penthouse Studios, a location usually associated with a very dry and lifeless sort of sound. Happily, this is not the case here, as we get a very lively rendering of all of Kirk's horns and vocalizations. There is a clear and crisp sound to the other instruments as well. This is especially true of the piano. All in all, this latest version might be the definitive word on an iconic Kirk masterpiece.

Switching over to the Van Gelder Studios for Rip, Rig & Panic, this January 1965 session is notable for the company Kirk kept. Jaki Byard and Richard Davis had already left a lasting impression working with Booker Ervin on his legendary "Book" records for Prestige. Add in Elvin Jones and you have a formidable rhythm section. Kirk rises to the occasion, sticking mainly to tenor saxophone, although the other horns in his arsenal are sagaciously used to add color.

Byard is in excellent form, especially when it comes to the stride overtones he gives to "From Bechet, Fats, and Byas." More avant-garde leanings are in the mix this time too. Sound effects and collective improvisation mark "Slippery, Hippery, Flippery," an off kilter number that eventually settles into a brisk stomping tempo. Much the same can be said of the title number, a series of wild escapades that concludes with more electronic effects and Kirk's voice.

Of the four albums, this might be the least underwhelming when it comes to sound quality. Van Gelder has rendered things in a rather flat plane and the use of the prerecorded electronic effects further adds to the problem. Elvin usually sounds great at Rudy's, but here he is pushed too far back into the mix. Even the piano manages to come off as one dimensional. All of this does little to distract from the impact of some of Kirk's most important music. It is just atypical of Van Gelder's work at the time.

Kirk would wrap up his tenure with Mercury with the November 1965 sessions at Capitol Studios that comprised the album Slightly Latin. Purists have often balked at this album as nothing more than a commercial gimmick. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the various cuts offer a great sampler of Kirk's many talents. Look out for some blustery baritone saxophone on "Juarez." "Shakey Money" finds Kirk on a bagpipe chanter and the atmospheric incantation of "Safari" is achieved by adding a studio audience as axuillary percussionists. It all manifests itself in a fine offering and just proves that Kirk refused to repeat himself from album to album.

In the interim between leaving Mercury and signing up with Atlantic Records, Kirk did a one shot offering for Verve. Faring much better this time at Van Gelder's, 1967's Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith is one of his most sublime statements and a criminally underrated masterpiece of the era. Accompanied by pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, bassist Ronnie Boykins, and drummer Grady Tate, Kirk settles on an approach that puts experimentation on the back burner and direct emotional expression at the forefront.

The opening "Blue Rol" is as masterful a statement by Kirk as he ever put to tape. Along with his tandem horns on the melody line, he throws in some remarkable displays of circular breathing, holding a note in the middle section for what seems like forever. He then caps it off with another extended cadenza, even as the rest of the band drops out. "Why Don't They Know" is a perky bossa that hints at Kirk's feeling of being somewhat under the radar of the casual jazz fan. His "conversation" with a young lady at the end of the track is simply a hoot. In fact, this pressing revealed some of the speech that this reviewer had simply not heard before.

It is a sense of playfulness that also imbues "Fall Out," Kirk's horns sputtering along with a positive message. Smith picks up on the vibe and has never sounded better than he does on these tracks. Kirk's signature siren whistle calls things to a close on a jubilant note. By contrast, the title track is all tenderness and serenity offered in tribute to Roland's wife Edith. This brief masterwork ends with vibrant flute work on the Billy Taylor ditty "It's a Grand Night for Swinging." Van Gelder adds some echo on the flute near the end as Boykins takes over for a solo. It's a perfectly programed recital that artfully illuminates Kirk's most valuable assets.

Having an in depth knowledge of this music and having owned it on various formats over the years, this reviewer can go on record as saying this set will be the last word in sound quality when it comes to these albums. The pressings were flat and extremely quiet with an analog warmth that was nonetheless still quite detailed and lifelike. The enclosed booklet features some great photos by the likes of Chuck Stewart and Francis Wolff, along with a brief essay by Todd Barkan and the liner notes reprinted for each album. Highly recommended without hesitation, you'll want to act quickly as only 3500 copies of this outstanding set are being offered.

Track Listing: Serenade To A Cuckoo; We'll Be Together Again/People; A Quote From Clifford Brown; Trees; Fugue'n And Alludin'; The Business Ain't Nothin' But The Blues; I Talk With The Spirits; Ruined Castles; Django; My Ship; No Tonic Pres; Once In A While; From Bechet, Byas And Fats; Mystical Dreams; Rip, Rig And Panic; Black Diamond; Slippery, Hippery, Flippery; Walk On By; Raouf; It's All In The Game; Juarez; Shakey Money; Nothing But The Truth; Safari; And I Love Her; Ebrauqs; Blue Rol; Alfie; Why Don't They Know; Silverlization; Fall Out; Now Please Don't Cry, Beautiful Edith; Stompin' Grounds; It's A Grand Night For Swinging

Personnel: Roland Kirk: tenor sax, baritone sax, manzello, stritch, flute, alto flute, African wooden flute, bagpipes, piccolo; Bobby Moses: vibes; Horace Parlan: piano, celeste; Michael Fleming: bass; Walter Perkins: drums; Miss C. J. Albert: vocal; Jaki Byard: piano; Richard Davis: bass; Elvin Jones: drums; Virgil Jones: trumpet; Martin Banks: fluegelhorn; Garnett Brown: trombone; Eddie Mathias: bass; Sonny Brown: drums, Nagoya harp; Montego Joe: congas; Manuel Ramos: percussion; Lonnie Liston Smith: piano; Ronnie Boykins: bass; Grady Tate: drums.

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