Jazz Icons: Rahsaan Roland Kirk Live In '63 & '67 is a new DVD offering a relatively rare chance to see a musical genius who's work was seldom captured on film or video. Few other musicians have so fully embodied their art than the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His ceaseless musical explorations led him to find countless ways to express himself. No method of playing an instrument was too unusual or extreme, provided it reproduced the sounds he heard in his mind.
Having become sightless as a child due to inadequate medical care, he immersed himself in the world of sound and music. His trademark was a self-developed technique of playing three different saxophones simultaneously. The invention did not stop there, however, as Kirk also mastered the ability to play many other combinations of instruments. This DVD from Reelin' In The Years Productions, part of their 23 title Jazz Icons series, offers a truly outstanding opprotunity to see a jazz giant at the top of his game. Throughout it's 80 minute running time, Jazz Icons: Rahsaan Roland Kirk Live In '63 & '67 presents three sets: the first from a Belgium TV broadcast in 1963, the second from a Holland TV broadcast also in '63, and the third from Kongsberg Jazz Festival in Norway in 1967.
Each of these concerts features unique surprises that will thrill everyone from hardcore jazz buffs to those with only limited knowledge of the genre. Let one thing be clear: Rahsaan Roland Kirk was one of the most defiantly original artists in music history. During his career, Kirk fought the perception that his multi-horn approach was some sort of parlour trick or sideshow gimmick. Even to this day, there are those that refuse to acknowledge him as a true giant. Hearing the music on this DVD, I find it hard to believe anyone would deny Kirk's mastery of the art of jazz improv.
I was first introduced to Kirk's music some years ago while browsing through Verve's Jazz Masters CD series. Even though I'd never heard of him before, I was transfixed by the cover photo of Jazz Masters 27 showing Kirk playing two saxophones at once. I simply had to hear what that sounded like, thereby initiating a near-obsessive quest to obtain as many of the man's recordings as I could find. Much of his recorded output is readily available on CD, including many live albums (some of which were released after his 1977 passing). But finding high quality film footage of his performances has been much more difficult.
Thankfully, Jazz Icons has delivered the goods in exemplary fashion with this new DVD. Viewers will be just as surprised, maybe confused, and ultimately dumbstruck by the sight and sound of Kirk performing as they were forty-plus years ago when these shows were filmed. He's timeless because there was no one remotely like him before or since. When the audience is heard laughing mid-song, or one of his sidemen is seen smirking in the background, it isn't out of derisiveness. It is a genuinely delighted reaction to the audaciousness of Kirk's individual style.
For both the Belgium and Holland concerts, Kirk is accompanied by the same trio: George Gruntz on piano, Guy Pedersen on bass, and Daniel Humair on drums. The Belgium portion comes from the television show Jazz Pour Tous and apparently was filmed (in black & white, as all three concerts were) without a studio audience. This is easily the best looking segment, as the footage is presented in astonishingly clear quality, considering it's age and obscurity. There is nothing fancy about the camera work, but there doesn't need to be. Kirk and his sidemen run through a five song set that finds Kirk soloing wildly on his three main horns: tenor sax, manzello (similar in tone to a soprano sax), and stritch (a modified straight alto).He plays these in a variety of combinations, but also solos brilliantly on each individually. During some of these solos, he unleashes torrents of notes spat out in a rapid-fire machine gun staccato – truly mindbending.
Another of Kirk's most often featured specialties was flute. While he could easily sustain the gentle sound usually associated with the flute, Kirk had a way of attacking the instrument in such an unorthodox way that the sounds produced by it were hardly recognizable. When he really worked up a sweat, he would simultaneously vocalize – humming and shouting – while soloing on the instrument. This style is a prominent aspect of one of his signature songs, "Three For the Festival," included in both the Belgium and Holland concerts. The Holland set, four numbers, was filmed for the television show "Rolando."
This time it's in a small club with a live audience. At the start of "Lover Man," Kirk pulls out a small wind-up music box and holds it up to the microphone while playing the intro on flute. Again, this is an example of the unpredictable strangeness that makes his music so unforgettable. This Holland footage isn't quite up to the visual standard set by the Belgium material, in fact it looks like it might've been taken from a video transfer of the original film footage. But that isn't to say it's not more than adequate, and the audio quality is excellent.
The final performance features a different backing trio: Ron Burton on piano, Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen on bass, and Alex Riel on drums. Seeing as this was a live festival, there is an audience present (though we never see them). This five song set is presented in very good audio/visual quality, though again the viewer must always remember this was filmed more than forty years ago. The highlights here are both Kirk originals, "Blue Rol" and "Making Love After Hours." During "Blue Rol" we are treated with some exquisite clarinet playing by Kirk. He does some astounding simultaneous playing of clarinet and tenor sax during this Dixieland-styled tune.
"Making Love After Hours" is a grooving soul number with some incredible flute playing. Rock fans familiar with Jethro Tull will recognize Kirk's style in the flute playing of Ian Anderson. Kirk's influence clearly was not limited to the jazz world. Also included in this set are Charlie Parker's "Blues For Alice" and the classic "The Shadow Of Your Smile." This stuff really needs to be heard to be appreciated, and now this DVD release allows us to see it as well.
This is the first DVD from the Jazz Icons series I've seen, but after being so thoroughly impressed by the quality presentation it will not be the last. The series boasts concert performances from legendary musicians that are previously unreleased on a home video format. Special note must be made of the outstanding 24 page booklet included with Jazz Icons: Rahsaan Roland Kirk Live In '63 & '67.
More often than not, I scoff when I see a booklet listed as a Special Feature on a DVD box. This time is a welcome exception, as there is a wealth of valuable information included. Much like a good set of album liner notes, this DVD's booklet features biographical information about the artist as well as further insight into each of the three concerts written by Kirk biographer John Kruth. There is even a newly written foreward by Dorthaan Kirk, Rahsaan's widow. I can hardly recommend this DVD any more highly, as it is a treasure trove for Kirk enthusiasts as well as an ideal introduction for new fans.