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Rahsaan Roland Kirk "Bright Moments"

Updated on March 1, 2013

(b. Columbus, Ohio, 7th Aug 1936 -- d. 5th Dec 1977)

Kirk was blinded soon after his birth, and was educated at Ohio State School for the Blind. He played saxophone and clarinet with a school band from the age of twelve, and by 1951 was leading his own group for dances and playing with other bands around the Ohio area. At sixteen he dreamed he was playing three instruments at once, and the next day went to a music shop and tried out all the reed instruments. He was taken to the basement to be shown "the scraps", and found two archaic saxophones which had been used in turn-of-the-century Spanish military bands, the stritch and the manzello; the first is a kind of straight alto sax, and the second looks a little like an alto, but sounds more like a soprano. Kirk took these and worked out a way of playing them simultaneously with the tenor sax, producing three-part harmonyby trick fingering. As there were often slight tuning discrepancies between the three instruments, the resulting sound could be harsh, almost with the characteristic of certain ethnic instruments, and this gave Kirk's music an added robustness. He also used sirens, whistles and other sounds to heighten the drama of his performances.

He made his first album in 1956, but it went virtually unnoticed. Then in 1960, through the help of Ramsey Lewis, he recorded for the Cadet label, and immediately caused controversy.People accused him of gimmmickry, and Kirk defended himself, saying that he did everything for a reason, and he heard sirens and things in his head when he played. He was, in fact, rooted very deeply in the whole jazz tradition, and knew all the early music, including thre work of Jelly Roll Morton (and Fats Waller) in which sirens, whistles, car horns and human voices had figured to brilliant effect. For Kirk, jazz was "black classical music", and he steeped in its wild, untamed spirit; in this he was "pure" - there were virtually no discernible influences from European classical music in his work.

In 1961 he worked with Charles Mingus for four months, playing on the album Oh Yeah and touring with him in California. His international reputation was burgeoning, and after his stint with Mingus he made his first trip to Europe, performing as soloist at the Essen jazz festival, West Germany. From 1963 he began a series of regular tours abroad with his own quartet, and played the first of several residencies at Ronnie Scott's club. For the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s he led his group the Vibration Society in clubs, concerts and major festivals throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1975, Kirk had a stroke which partially paralysed one side of his body. With tremendous courage he began performing again with one arm - an almost impossible handicap for a saxophonist - and he managed to tour internationally, play some festivals and appear on TV. In 1977 a second stroke caused his death.

Kirk was much loved, not only by his audiences but also by other musicians. He was unclassifiable: a completely original performer whose style carried in it the whole of jazz history from early New Orleans roots, through swing and bebop, to the abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde. Throughout his career he recorded tributes to people he particularly loved, and they included Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Roy Haynes, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Barney Bigard and John Coltrane. Yet he could be classified neither as a traditionalist nor as an avant-gardist; his music was always of the present, but contained the essence of past forms. Even in the 1990s his music does not sound dated - it sounds ever-present, beyond time. Playing one instrument - either tenor sax or the manzello - Kirk showed clearly that he was one of the great improvisers. He was an enthusiast who was always listening and learning, and he was generous in his encouragement of aspiring young musicians. He was a composer of memorable tunes: some of the better-known ones are "From Bechet, Byas and Fats", "No Tonic Pres", "Bright Moments", "Let Me Shake Your Tree", "The Inflated Tear".

J.E. Berendt said that Kirk had "all the wild untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz musician", and Michael Ullman wrote: "Hearing him, one can almost feel that music, like the Lord in 'Shine On Me', can 'heal the sick and raise the dead'."

"Bright Moments" Montreux 1975 (Part 1)

Instruments and technique

Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were tenor saxophone and two obscure saxophones: the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument's characteristic upturned bell) and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, tuned to C, with an upturned bell). Kirk modified these instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.

He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, as well as a variety of other instruments, including flutes and whistles, and often kept a gong within reach. Kirk also played harmonica, English horn, and recorders, and was a competent trumpeter. He often had unique approaches, using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet or playing nose flute. He additionally used many non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed "the black mystery pipes"). His studio recordings also used tape-manipulated musique concrète, and primitive electronic sounds (before such things became commonplace).

Listen to this audio clip · (info) Rahsaan simultaneously playing flute and singing, punctuated with a siren whistle. (audio help) Listen to this audio clip · (info) Rahsaan playing black mystery pipes. (audio help) Listen to this audio clip · (info) Rahsaan simultaneously playing multiple saxophones. (audio help)

Kirk was also an influential flautist, employing several techniques that he developed himself. One technique was to sing or hum into the flute at the same time as playing. Another was to play the standard transverse flute at the same time as a nose flute.

Some observers thought that Kirk's bizarre onstage appearance and simultaneous multi-instrumentalism were just gimmicks, especially when coming from a blind man, but these opinions usually vanished when Kirk actually started playing. He used the multiple horns to play true chords, essentially functioning as a one-man saxophone section. Kirk insisted that he was only trying to emulate the sounds he heard in his head.

Kirk was also a major exponent and practitioner of circular breathing. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note for virtually any length of time; he could also play sixteenth-note runs of almost unlimited length, and at high speeds. His circular breathing ability enabled him to record "Concerto For Saxophone" on the Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle LP in one continuous take of about 20 minutes' playing with no discernible "break" for inhaling. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believed he should have received credit in The Guinness Book of World Records for such feats (he was capable of playing continuously "without taking a breath" for far longer than exhibited on that LP), but this never happened.

The Case Of The 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color was a unique album in jazz and popular music recorded annals. It was a two-LP set, with Side 4 apparently "blank," the label not indicating any content. However, once word of "the secret message" got around among Rahsaan's fans, one would find that about 12 minutes into Side 4 appeared the first of two telephone answering machine messages recorded by Kirk, the second following soon thereafter (but separated by more blank grooves). The surprise impact of these segments appearing on "blank" Side 4 was lost, of course, on the CD reissue of this album. These spoken-word segments reflected the tenor of the times, so to speak, with the rather pessimistic theme that humanity had "blown" its chance to live in a world of peace and harmony. But this was entirely in keeping with the fact that, despite his loss at an early age of his sight, Rahsaan was very much on top of societal developments, racial and economic injustice and disparity. Indeed, he had participated many years previously in protests against the failure of TV show hosts like Merv Griffin to hire any non-white musicians.

He gleaned information on what was happening in the world via audio media like radio and the sounds coming from TV sets. His later recordings often incorporated his spoken commentaries on current events, including Richard M. Nixon's involvement in Watergate. The "3-Sided Dream" album was a "concept album," somewhat akin to the Beatles' "psychedelic" phase in the incorporation of "found" or environmental sounds and tape loops, tapes being played backwards, etc. Snippets of Billie Holiday singing are also heard briefly. The album even confronts the rise of influence of computers in society, as Rahsaan threatens to pull the plug on the machine trying to tell him what to do.

"Bright Moments" Montreux 1975 (Part 2)

Clickety Clack (Bright Moments)

Now, it's a beautiful thing, we're glad you people are assembled here with us on this Saturday night ... You know what I mean? You don't feel like Saturday night people. Some Saturday night people, that's the only night they get out and they act like it.

Now we would like to think of some very beautiful Bright Moments. You know what I mean?

Bright Moments.

Bright Moments is like eating your last pork chop in London, England, because you ain't gonna get no more . . . cooked from home.

Bright Moments is like being with your favorite love and you're sharing the same ice cream dish. And you get mad when she gets the last drop.

And you have to take her in your arms and get it the other way.

Bright Moments.

That's too heavy for most of you all because you all don't know nothing about that kind of love. The love you all have been taught about is the love in those magazines. And I am fortunate that I didn't have to look at magazines.

Bright Moments.

Bright Moments is like seeing something that you ain't ever seen in your life and you don't have to see it but you know how it looks.

Bright Moments is like hearing some music that ain't nobody else heard, and if they heard it they wouldn't even recognize that they heard it because they been hearing it all their life but they nutted on it so, when you hear it and you start popping your feet and jumping up and down they get mad because you're enjoying yourself but those are bright moments that they can't share with you because they don't even know how to go about listening to what you're listening to and when you try to tell them about it they don't know a damn thing about what your're talking about!

Is there any other Bright Moments before we proceed on?

Bright Moments.

Bright Momen

Bright Moments is like having brothers and sisters and sisterettes and brotherettes like you all here listening to us.

Legacy and influence

  • Kirk's technique of humming while playing the flute was adopted later by many other players, including Jeremy Steig, Thijs van Leer, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, (who covered the Kirk tune "Serenade to a Cuckoo" on Jethro Tull's first album This Was in 1968).

  • In 1978 the number one UK single "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads featured saxophonist Davey Payne playing a solo with two saxes simultaneously, in the manner of Kirk, though it cannot be compared to Kirk's sophisticated, multi-layered technique.

  • Dana Colley of Morphine and Twinemen occasionally plays "double sax". Examples are "Super Sex" and "Radar" on the Morphine album Yes and "Wishing Well" on Like Swimming.

  • British reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith also emulated Kirk in playing multiple saxophones simultaneously.

  • Jeff Coffin, solo artist and member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, plays multiple saxophones simultaneously.

  • David Jackson, of Van der Graaf Generator, was also highly influenced by the style and technique of Kirk.

  • Courtney Pine, a saxophonist from the UK, also uses circular breathing and plays two saxophones at once in live performance.

  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk is the namesake of jazz artists Roland and Rahsaan Barber, brothers who play trombone and saxophone respectively.

  • Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist of Radiohead, acknowledged his respect and love for Kirk's music on the band's blog.

  • Trombonist Steve Turre was strongly influenced by Kirk's music (and by his use of a conch shell as a second instrument).

  • Thurston Moore wore a Rahsaan Roland Kirk t-shirt for a promo shoot for Sonic Youth's album Goo

  • Drummer Ramon Lopez paid a surprising and vitalistic tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk in his 2002 album Duets 2 Rahsaan Roland Kirk, inviting 9 differents artists (Joëlle Léandre, Thierry Madiot, Harry Beckett, Majid Bekkas, Beñat Achiary...) for 9 duets on 9 compositions of Kirk's.



Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    8 years ago

    All I got to say is WE FREE KINGS. RRK was way ahead.

  • Dink96 profile image


    10 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

    No one has commented because they can't wrap their heads around this cat. Even today, he is too far ahead of his time for the populace. Have seen Steve Turre play the conch--unbelievable! And Courtney Pine's not bad either.


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