Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom

If there was ever a musician to whom the old saying "They made him, and then broke the mold" applied, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was it. Blind from age 2, Kirk (1936-1977) came to prominence in the tumultuous 1960s, playing more wind instruments (tenor sax, flute, English horn, clarinet, etc. -- several of them simultaneously, even) than you've had hot breakfasts this month. In an era when jazz was caught in a tug of war between the tradition-bound swing/ bop old-school and the deadly serious, art-with-a-capital-A avant-garde, Kirk could play circles around most cats at any point in the spectrum. He did so with a bold, over-the-top irreverence, refusing to take himself too seriously and embracing the emerging African-American consciousness without ever coming off as anti-white. (On Kirk's album The Inflated Tear, one track is dedicated to Brit rockers Eric Burdon & the Animals; he also jammed with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.) While many jazz musicians in the '60s and '70s (and today, alas) seemed unaware or disdainful of both pop music and jazz predating the bebop era (the mid-'40s), Kirk gave an enthusiastic bear-hug to the entire history of black music, from gospel to the blues to Stevie Wonder.

Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom, recorded in a San Diego club (after a two-week stand at S.F.'s legendary Keystone Korner, where Kirk was something of a fixture) in 1974, captures the performer at the peak of his powers. Any reservations you might have about the flute's suitability as a jazz instrument will be eliminated after one listen to the strutting, funky, punchy "Fly Town Nose Blues." Kirk's tenor wails gorgeously on the ballad standard "My One and Only Love," like a cross between John Coltrane, '40s master Don Byas, and experimenter Joe Lovano; and then madly on the gospel nugget "Old Rugged Cross." On both tunes Kirk employs circular breathing, playing for long stretches without pausing to inhale. At the conclusion of the encore "Freaks for the Festival," he takes his exit not with false humility, but with haste, like the Three Stooges' Curly Howard in his best let's-bust-up-this-joint frenzy. And let's not slight the contributions of Kirk's band the Vibration Society: With these fellows, the swing is most definitely the thing, and pianist Hilton Ruiz plays with the easy lyrical grace of a sparkling waterfall. Neophytes might want to begin with a studio album (The Case of the Three Sided Dream in Audio Color or the aforementioned Tear), but if you've ever been any kind of Kirk fan, Compliments is essential.

 
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