There is a kind of inverted parallelism between jazz in the '60s and jazz in the '90s, two periods when the music moved in strikingly different directions.
The earlier decade was filled with iconoclasm, rebellion and a sense of aggressive seeking--a perfect reflection of the turbulent era in which it emerged. Jazz in the '90s, on the other hand, with its neoclassic reexamination of the past, has been dominated by a more conservative musical point of view, also socially reflective, this time of the inward-looking society of the decade.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a high-visibility artist in the '60s and '70s (he died in 1977 at the age of 41, after surviving a stroke in 1975). But he was seen, more often, as a talented jazz oddity rather than an innovator comparable to, say, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy or John Coltrane. The bizarre qualities of his multi-instrumental skills, compelling as they were, tended to obscure the cutting-edge aspects of his musical imagination.
Blind from the age of 2, Kirk grew up to become an uncommon virtuoso. Pursuing a dream in which he played two saxophones simultaneously, he made the feat an essential part of his music. Often he played three instruments at the same time (an exploit he termed "splitting of the lobes") and was proficient on flute, reed trumpet as well as an array of other instruments.
Beyond his phenomenal visual and aural presentations, Kirk was a powerful, fundamental jazz artist. Had he been limited to one or two saxophones, he would nonetheless have been a major player.
But what almost immediately becomes apparent in this gripping four-CD set is Kirk's willingness to try anything. Active during a time filled with ideas, he was a creative sponge, taking everything in, absorbing and transforming it into his own form of expression. Sometimes the results sounded hokey and musically manipulative. More often, they caught the ear and the mind with a riveting quality not always apparent in other areas of '60s and '70s avant-garde. Ironically, they take more chances, and more often capture the attention, than many of the new jazz recordings being released in the conservative '90s.
The best evidence is in the four albums included here--"Left & Right," "Rahsaan Rahsaan," "Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle" and "Other Folks' Music." Recorded between 1968 and 1976, they have never before been released on CD.
It's hard to imagine what has taken so long, since they are filled with a bountiful collection of music. There is straight jazz improvising; there are extended works in which Kirk is accompanied by a string section; there are pastiche-style pieces filled with rap-style narration and unexpected sound effects; there are classical references (a brief rendering of the familiar high bassoon passage from Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring," for instance).
And there are extraordinary technical feats: on one piece, Kirk manages to play nose flute and a regular flute simultaneously; on another, he plays two melodies at the same time on two instruments. Perhaps most remarkable of all (is Kenny G listening?), on his "Saxophone Concerto," he uses a circular breathing technique to perform a 21-minute solo without stopping his flow of notes to take a breath.
What is most important, however, is that "Aces Back to Back," along with the previously released "Dog Years in the Fourth Ring" are finally providing Kirk's music with the recognition it has long deserved. He will always be remembered for the colorful qualities of his instrumental gymnastics. But these two collections confirm his role as an artistic innovator and belatedly acknowledge his importance as one of the most adventurous artists from an adventurous musical decade.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).