Rahsaan Roland Kirk - woodwinds, flute, vocals; Sonelius Smith - piano, vocals; Dick Griffin - trombone, vocals; Charles McGhee - trumpet, vocals; Henry Pearson - bass, vocals; Jerry Griffin - drums, vocals; Joe Habad Texidor - percussion, vocals
Rahsaan Roland Kirk lost his sight when he was two years old, but this had little effect on him pursuing music. While attending the Ohio School for the Blind, he set the groundwork that would eventually lead to him mastering over 40 instruments. Kirk developed a reputation for being aggressively outspoken on racial and political issues and remained eccentric throughout his musical career. Always in search of new sounds, Kirk not only learned how to play multiple instruments simultaneously, but also actively experimented in reconstructing new instruments by combining parts from existing ones. Playing multiple instruments, which became part of Kirk's signature sound, required mastering a circular breathing technique. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note as long as he pleased, but he could solo at high speeds for virtually unlimited lengths of time. Kirk was also an influential flute player, developing new techniques such as singing or humming at the same time or playing the nose flute and a standard model simultaneously.
These eccentricities, as well as his embracing of contemporary pop, soul, and rock compositions, often alienated him from the jazz community. Although firmly planted within a jazz framework, Kirk often mixed in diverse elements like classical with ragtime or traditional Dixieland with contemporary R&B. Like Bob Dylan when he plugged in an electric guitar and Miles Davis when he embraced electronic instrumentation, purists were often in an uproar over Kirk's irreverence toward tradition. Some initially thought this multi-instrumentalism was a gimmick, but upon hearing him perform as a one-man horn section and actually achieving true chords through multiple horns, few were unimpressed.
One of Kirk's most provocative and engaging albums was his 1969 release, Volunteered Slavery, a half live/half studio affair that came closest to capturing his iconoclastic nature. Jazz, post-bop blues and chanted poetry are all featured on this diverse album, as well as brilliant reinterpretations of contemporary pop song hits. On these numbers in particular, Kirk proved that even the most accessible pop melodies could fuel improvisation that was as moving as the intricate modal explorations of John Coltrane, who he also pays tribute on the album. More so than on any of his previous albums, Volunteered Slavery proved that Kirk was indeed a master musician who defied categorization.
This 1971 performance by Kirk and his group, then going under the moniker Rahsaan Roland Kirk and His Vibration Society, was recorded live at Fillmore East on a triple bill opening for Tower of Power and Santana. Like the early show from that evening (also featured here at Wolfgang's), Kirk's late show features material from the Volunteered Slavery album. However, this late show set also features early incarnations of several numbers destined for future Kirk albums, providing listeners with a fascinating glimpse at several original Kirk compositions developing live onstage.
Prime examples of this are the first two tracks, "Pedal Up," which kicks off the set and "Dance of Revolution" which immediately follows. At this point in time, "Pedal Up," was still two years away from becoming one of the highlights of Kirk's 1973 album Bright Moments. A modal homage to John Coltrane, this number is a brilliant example of Kirk performing on soprano and tenor saxophone simultaneously. Trumpeter Charles McGhee and trombonist Dick Griffin each follow Kirk with exhilarating solos of their own, but it's Kirk's lead off soprano solo that remains most dazzling. Kirk captures both the passion and fluency of Coltrane here, and listeners may recognize spontaneous traces of My Favorite Things surfacing within. The performance of "Dance of Revolution" which directly follows takes things even further out, with Kirk and the group heading into wilder free jazz territory. This would eventually surface on Kirk's other 1973 release Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle as the dizzying conclusion to his ambitious "Saxophone Concerto."
Next up is a track featured on the Volunteered Slavery album, a remarkable interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Ma Cherie Amour." With Kirk switching to flute here, these musicians retain the melodic beauty of the original, while adding many new layers of originality.
Kirk then introduces the band members and begins a dialogue with the audience that is both confrontational and humorous. Addressing that he and his band play "beautiful black music," he directly accuses the previous night's audience of bigotry, while praising this night's audience as being more open. This sequence is a fascinating glimpse into Kirk's strong convictions and determination to speak his mind. During this monologue, he lets everyone know his take on the current administration by declaring "Nixon will get ya in the war against us." This monologue serves as a launching point for an incredible performance of another yet-to-be-released number "Island Cry," which would eventually see official release on Kirk's 1974 album Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata. Essentially a duet performance accompanied by percussionist Joe Texidor, this is an incredible example of Kirk's circular breathing technique, which provides him the ability to solo rapidly and at length with seemingly boundless limitations. This is a staggering display compressed into three minutes, with a barrage of creativity bursting from Kirk, including spontaneous quotes from the Hebrew folk standard "Hava Nagila." This concludes with an extended honking dissonance that serves as a prelude to "Volunteered Slavery," which concluded both sets on this night.
A provocative opening riff from Kirk signals the beginning of "Volunteered Slavery," with the musicians gradually joining in. With its Beat-style chanted poetry and post-bop blues ethos, this is another engaging performance. During the opening chant section, Kirk goes off into another monologue that celebrates boxer Muhammad Ali and calls for action to free political activist Angela Davis, who was imprisoned at the time. Kirk's dialogues certainly reflect the turbulent times and are intentionally confrontational, with Kirk well aware of the power of music to alter the way people think and effect social change. Following this, the band dramatically launch into the second section, an ecstatic jam that unfortunately wasn't captured in its entirety.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk's artistic vision is impossible to categorize, which is one of the reasons his music polarized so many critics, and his brilliance has been largely overlooked. This is music that is both beautiful and edgy, with layers of irony and irreverence in the mix. But more than anything, this is an exuberant and joyful performance that clearly conveys Kirk's almost maniacal need to push his music beyond all boundaries.