Why is it that in every musical genre there have to be people who appoint themselves as the protectors of its integrity. I hate to admit that the majority of the time these people are critics who seem to feel they know what the music is better than the people who play it. Unfortunately, that means they usually end up doing their best to squelch anything innovative or different as it messes with their vision of what the music should be.
Even worse are the ones who set themselves up as some sort of moral arbitrator which gives them the right to decide whether a musician's labour should be taken seriously or dismissed as inconsequential. If someone dares to have fun, or do anything that might look the slightest bit like they weren't taking the music seriously, they would be quick to denounce the hapless soul with accusations of reducing the music to a side show. We critics live to be taken seriously, so if there's the slightest chance that something might bring us down from the little points on high where we sit in judgment, we lash out with all the outrage and sanctimoniousness of the insecure.
So it's not really that surprising to read that quite a few jazz music critics, so called purists, treated Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the same amount of respect they would a circus sideshow freak when he first started playing. According to the liner notes included in the DVD, Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live in '63 & '67, part of the Jazz Icons 3 being released on September 30th by Reelin' In The Years and Naxos, their disdain was based on the fact that not only was Kirk able to play more then one of his instruments at a time, but he would also appear in concert festooned with them all around his neck. If that wasn't bad enough, he had the gall to make use of instruments that either he had modified to suit his needs or were strange things like nose flutes and whistles.
Now, I must admit the first time you catch site of Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the Live In '63 & '67 DVD it's a little disconcerting. For not only does he wear the saxophone he's playing around his neck, but he also has two other saxophone type instruments, and other, smaller and not instantly recognizable, instruments wrapped around his neck that turn out to be a nose flute and a whistle with a miniature saxophone bell attached. As you watch the DVD and the excerpts from the three concerts included on it, Belgium and Holland in 1963 and Norway in 1967, you realize that's only the start, as he routinely adds more instruments. Another modified saxophone, this one with a French Horn bell, is looped around his neck, a flute appears in the bell of his alto saxophone, and castanets appear as if by magic in one of his hands.
There are two reasons for Kirk to be wearing so many instruments at once and they are interconnected. First of all he is blind and because he switches between them so frequently, and or plays more than one at a time, he can't afford to spend time groping around on stage trying to find the one he needs at any particular moment. While some critics might have dismissed his playing multiple instruments as some sort of gimmick, and dismissed it as not being music or jazz, one only has to listen to Kirk's playing to realize how much blinder they were than him.
John Kruth's extensive liner notes that accompany the disc, describe how a record producer once walked into a studio's sound booth and upon hearing Kirk's playing complimented the engineer on the great horn section in the studio that day. Needless to say he was astounded to find out it was only one man playing. While I've seen other horn players play two saxophones before – usually a tenor and an alto – I've never heard anyone play two different melody lines at the same time. He's actually harmonizing with himself on two separate horns If that sounds insanely difficult, it's only because it is.
Now, I don't have what you'd call a great ear when it comes to discerning things like key or other intricacies of music, but even I could hear that he was playing two different things on the two separate horns. There were moments when I was watching this DVD when I couldn't believe what my eyes and ears were telling me. If the recordings hadn't been so obviously made in 1963 and 1967, I would have sworn that they had been done using computer generated graphics in order for what Kirk was doing to be possible.
Of course Rahsaan wasn't limited to playing saxophones, or reed instruments, he was also a remarkable flutist. Listening to him play his flute on the two versions of "Three For The Festival" that are included on this disc, one from the concert in Holland in 1963 the other four years later in Norway, you not only hear how talented a player he was, but you hear how he continually evolved his playing style. While its still obviously the same tune, the version he plays in Norway is far more sophisticated then the earlier performance. The texture of the song's sound seems to have become thicker in the intervening years, as if Kirk has built an additional layer of sound into it somehow.
Probably the most surprising thing about Rahsaan Roland Kirk's playing is how sensitive it can be. Not only can he play at speed, and create the wild skirling music that we'd expect from someone playing multiple instruments, he exhibits a deftness of touch that allows him to be just as adroit with the gentler pieces. Yet even then, if you were to close your eyes while listening, you'd be hard pressed to believe it's only one man playing.
The Jazz Icons series is onto its third set of DVDs now, and it continues to provide a wonderful opportunity for people to get to know some of the greats of the jazz world. Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live In '64 & '68 makes a convincing argument for Kirk's inclusion in that stellar company. For sheer excitement, and jaw-dropping astonishment, there are few players alive today who can match what he accomplished during his years performing and recording. While there might still be a few purists who will dismiss him and his playing, the rest of us can just get on with enjoying his gifts and listening to some great music.