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Roland Kirk (August 7, 1935 – December 5, 1977)
Roland Kirk with McCoy Tyner Stanley Clarke 1975
The figure of Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Columbus (Ohio), August 7, 1936 – Bloomington (Indiana), December 5, 1977), always stood out for his instrumental showiness.
This magnificent multi-instrumentalist had already experimented in his early years with the possibility of playing two saxes at the same time and did not give up his efforts until he bought a manzello and a stritch, variants of the alto and soprano sax, in a musical instrument store, with which he came to blow three saxes at the same time.
Inventive, skilled and virtuoso on any wind instrument, Roland Kirk-he adopted the Muslim name of Rahsaan when he converted to Islam-had great technique and creativity. He managed to get sounds from his instruments hitherto unexplored by any other saxophonist.
His staging was also spectacular when he offered live concerts. He used to go on stage with several dozen wind instruments that, in a random and improvised way, he combined throughout his performance.
His musical beginnings were linked to Rhythm and blues and at just fifteen years old, he was already playing in some groups in his hometown in Ohio. His meeting and collaboration with the double bass master, Charles Mingus, helped him to make himself known and to acquire a solid musical background.
Roland Kirk began recording as the leader of his own group in 1960 with the album Introducing Roland Kirk for the Chess label. Since then his recording activity was enormous and during the sixties and seventies he recorded more than fifty albums, some as extraordinary as the one recorded in 1962 for Verve, entitled “Domino”, an album that definitely opened the doors of success for him. Unclassifiable and versatile musician, but always associated with avant-garde jazz, Rahsaan Roland Kirk died in 1977 when his music was fully identified with modern jazz.
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Triple Threat (1956)
Introducing Roland Kirk (1960)
Kirk's Work (1961)
1961: We Free Kings 1962: Domino 1963: Reeds & Deeds 1963: The Roland Kirk Quartet Meets the Benny Golson Orchestra 1964: Kirk in Copenhagen 1964: Gifts & Messages
1964: I Talk with the Spirits 1965: Slightly Latin 1965: Rip, Rig and Panic
Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith (1967)
1965: Here Comes the Whistleman 1967: The Inflated Tear 1968: Left & Right 1969: Volunteered Slavery 1970: Rahsaan Rahsaan 1971: Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata 1972: Blacknuss 1972: A Meeting of the Times 1973: Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle 1973: Bright Moments 1975: The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color 1976: Other Folks' Music
Warner Bros. Records
1976: The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man 1977: Kirkatron 1977: Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real
Posthumous releases of new material
The Man Who Cried Fire (Night, 1990) I, Eye, Aye: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1972 (Rhino, 1996) – live recorded in 1972 Dog Years in the Fourth Ring (32 Jazz, 1997) – recorded in 1963-75 Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom (Hyena, 2003) – live recorded in 1974 Brotherman in the Fatherland (Hyena, 2006) – live recorded in Germany in 1972
Compilations and box sets
Hip (Fontana, 1965) Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk (Mercury, 1990)[10CD] Does Your House Have Lions: The Rahsaan Roland Kirk Anthology (Rhino, 1993)[2CD] Simmer, Reduce, Garnish & Serve (Warner Archives, 1995) – compilation from his last three albums Talkin' Verve: Roots of Acid Jazz (Verve, 1996) The Art of Rahsaan Roland Kirk - The Atlantic (Atlantic, 1996)[2LP] Aces Back to Back (32 Jazz, 1998)[4CD] – combines Left & Right (1968), Rahsaan Rahsaan (1970), Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle (1973) and Other Folks' Music (1976) A Standing Eight (32 Jazz, 1998)[2CD] – combines The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man (1976), Kirkatron (1977) and Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real (1977) Left Hook, Right Cross (32 Jazz, 1999)[2CD] – combines Volunteered Slavery (1969) and Blacknuss (1972) Third Dimension and Beyond (Gambit, 2005) – combines Triple Threat (1957) and Introducing Roland Kirk (1960) Only The Best of Rahsaan Roland Kirk Volume 1 (Collectables, 2009)[7CD] – combines Blacknuss, The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color, The Inflated Tear/Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata, Kirkatron, Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real, and Other Folks' Music
Legacy and influence
Ian Anderson, leader and flautist of Jethro Tull recorded a version of Kirk’s “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on their first album This Was (1968). Roland Kirk was the very reason Anderson thought he could bring a flute into rock music. Anderson learned Kirk’s vocalizing style on the flute, and Anderson’s flute playing became the signature element of Jethro Tull’s sound. Kirk and Anderson took the flute’s refined upper crust classical nature and commonized it.
Anderson got to know Kirk at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, where they both performed the same night. Anderson said of Kirk “There’s something about these colourful shamans. They can tease us, but we go along with it, because we know they’re touched by genius, but at the same time there’s a little bit of the snake oil for sale.”
Jeff Coffin, the saxophonist in Béla Fleck and the Flecktones was heavily influenced by Kirk’s music and says he learned through Kirk that it’s OK to experiment with an instrument. He used Kirk’s multi-horn inventions with the Flecktones and on his solo album Mutopia.
Guitarist Jimi Hendrix “idolized” Kirk, and even hoped to collaborate with him one day.
Frank Zappa had been influenced by Kirk’s music to a considerable extent early in his career. In the liner notes to his 1966 debut album with The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!, Zappa cites Kirk as one of many in a lengthy list of personal musical influences. Kirk and Zappa performed live together at least once, at the 1969 Boston Globe Jazz Festival.
Derek Trucks, a huge Kirk fan, recorded Kirk’s composition “Volunteered Slavery” with his namesake group for the 2004 album Live at Georgia Theatre, the 2006 studio album Songlines, and the DVD Songlines Live. He said that hearing Kirk’s music “felt much the same way those Hendrix records felt, that he was blowing the rules wide open…”
David Jackson, of Van der Graaf Generator, was also highly influenced by the style and technique of Kirk, and he plays multiple saxophones simultaneously since at least 1969.
Guitarist Michael Angelo Batio said in a 2008 interview with Ultimate Guitar Archive that Kirk’s playing of two saxophones at once inspired him to create his “double guitar”.
T.J. Kirk was a band named after the three artists it tributed: Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Formed by eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter as a side group to his own self-titled band, the band’s other members include Scott Amendola, Will Bernard, and John Schott.
Paul Weller cited the Kirk album I Talk with the Spirits (1964) as one of his “Most Influential Albums” in an interview with The Times in 2009.
Björk named The Inflated Tear as one of her favorite jazz pieces, calling it “primitive and instinctive”, “open to nature”, and “punk”.
Davey Payne’s twin saxophone solo on “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Ian Dury & the Blockheads, 1978) was inspired by Kirk.
Terry Edwards’ twin saxophone solo on “The Ministry of Defence” by PJ Harvey (2016) was inspired by Kirk.
Eric Burdon and War’s 1970 debut album Eric Burdon Declares War features the track “The Vision of Rassan”, which is broken up into two pieces “Dedication” and “Roll on Kirk”.
The English post-punk group Rip Rig + Panic were named after the album of the same name by Roland Kirk.
Clutch pay tribute to Roland Kirk in the song “Three Golden Horns” off their 2022 album Sunrise on Slaughter Beach.