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Director: Adam Kahan

Format: Classical, Color, NTSC

Language: English

Captions: German, French

Region: All Regions

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Studio: Arthaus Musik

Release Date: August 26, 2016

Run Time: 107 minutes


This DVD surveys the career of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and is not a concert recording nor a musical compilation. He was a one-of-a-kind jazz artist, and unusually so, and any music lover curious to learn just how will probably do best to turn to this Blu-Ray documentary.

Rahsaan, whose career launched around 1960, played various saxes (soprano, tenor, baritone, even a five-foot-long straight sax), flutes, oboes, clarinets, the stritch and manzello, the harp, and sundry instruments such as nose flutes, gongs, kazoos and whistles, bells placed in his turbans, and cymbals between his knees. He liked to scat, rap or sing while playing various instruments—all at the same time. He could play three or more wind instruments for their combined sound, such as to evoke an orchestra’s bank of brasses, or as easily carry two or more legitimate, harmonically-arresting solos on brass instruments simultaneously (his version of Satin Doll, for a US TV show, attests to this inspired harmonizing).

Yet Rahsaan detested being thought of as “gimmicky.” To paraphrase trombonist Steve Turre, among others interviewed here, he played odd-looking but intriguing multi-instrumental combinations not because he could, nor to impress, but because he wanted more, richer, ever more unusual ways to connect musically with his audience.

It can be a challenge to appreciate the music while overlooking the semblance of “Look, Ma: no hands!” During a pause onstage, he talks about his bafflement at those who find nose flutes amusing; it’s a perfectly natural part of the breathing apparatus, he explains in a rap, while playing a bird-like song on a nose flute.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977) was a gifted musician with a comedic musical sense alongside an earnest social consciousness. Too much medicine (silver nitrate) administered as a baby damaged his corneas, rendering him blind. Yet he was acutely aware of racism, and of the movements that finally came to oppose it in the US, and he was outspoken about these issues when it was seen as extremely controversial to talk politics during musical performances.

He claimed to have been guided by an extremely vivid dream life that inspired him to play more than one instrument at a time, and to add Rahsaan to his name late in his life. After becoming established in this extravagant performing and recording career, at 39 he was felled by a stroke. Rahsaan was apparently despondent, but soon decided to adapt his instruments to play notes normally reached by the damaged hand. It involved simplifying the music, but while part paralyzed he was still remarkably articulate. Even then, he shied from admitting it to his audiences, worrying that they might feel cheated!

Musicians who joined him onstage were given no musical charts, but were expected to play completely by ear, including accompanists of the stature of pianists Jaki Byard and Stan Tracey. His impressive multi-instrumentalism was reinforced by his circular breathing skills, a technique whereby not taking noticeable breathing pauses allows for longer solos, as if some infinite bellows were exhaling into Rahsaan’s wind instruments. In this DVD a crowd is shown clapping to clarinet-led barrelhouse jazz while he strolls among them doing a 12-minute, uninterrupted sax improvisation (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1972). Although not given to musical quotation, in that version ofVolunteered Slavery he cites the closing theme from The Beatles’ Hey Jude.

As for his style, he could sound rough and scratchy, investing no effort to play smooth and creamy, yet without awkwardness switch to the most mellifluous sax soloing, as might suit a moving ballad. Rahsaan was completely novel in his musical restlessness, despite a firm place in the tradition of saxophonists with strong voices and a wealth of new ideas. In fact, being so varied may have impaired his career, keeping him from a distinct persona that might facilitate “branding” him with a listening public. While not as “out there” as Sun Ra, and totally alien to the rigours of an Andrew Hill, he was far less shrill than late Coltrane, yet, in his way, no less experimental than John Cage. It is telling that he played with the spontaneity-prone likes of Mingus, and that both the aleatoric, even euphoric Hendrix and Duane Allman wanted to make music with him.

Anyone familiar with Michala Petri humming through her recorder in the closing movement of Vagn Holmboe’s delightful Concerto for Recorder, Strings, Celesta and Vibraphone may wonder if the Danish composer was familiar with Rahsaan, who gained notoriety for humming and vocalizing while playing the flute, sax or oboe.

Along with show material and some early footage of the artist as a child, Director Adam Kahan managed to track down European TV interviews with him and several of his musical contemporaries. Anecdotes are told by his widow, Dorthaan, and by trombonist Steve Turre and others who played alongside him. Yet, all things considered, one is left wishing for more. Much would have been gained from additional clips and features—for instance, interviews with Yusef Lateef or Stan Tracey, who were both still alive while this was being put together. Their anecdotes and perspectives would surely have enriched this DVD considerably.

His ambition was to broaden exposure to jazz, especially through television. Yet, despite being as proficient a tenor sax player as most of his star contemporaries, precious little visual footage seems to exist of Rahsaan’s straight-ahead playing. Few numbers are played right through or without interruptions or digressions, so expect most songs here to be chopped up, one supposes out of necessity, interspliced with voice-overs and spoken snippets. Despite a decent legacy of recommendable recordings, he never quite made it big enough that film crews would follow him into the studio, and only a scattering exist of his performances in clubs. This lack is compensated to a point with artful animation that coordinates with audio snippets lacking film footage, and spoken material superimposed on film with no soundtrack. More of even such contrivances may have enhanced this production.

In the first of the DVD’s two extras, with producer Joel Dorn, one gathers that Rahsaan turned off as nearly many people as he turned on. Despite a loyal fan base, his unusual showmanship and onstage politicking antagonized many—to say nothing of his instrumental promiscuity, wilfully changing his name, or, frankly, his onstage schtick with the police whistle and kazoo.

And yet… when it comes to Rahsaan, there is often an ‘and yet’ reconsideration. Yet, besides the mentioned 12˝-minute interview with Dorn, in a second, 7-minute segment Rahsaan performs an engagingBright Moments on flute, where he also sings a richly desafinado, samba-like performance at writer Ken Kesey’s farm in 1977.

The picture quality and sound on this Blu-ray disc are excellent. A few 1970s television gimmicks may grate: double imaging, filming through trippy coloured filters, cameras roving around pillars during performance, etc.— “arty” irritants, but nothing major. Optional captions are in German or French only.

All told, this is a wonderful document and introduction to the musician, and probably the best audio-visual compilation of Rahsaan in performance and interviews now available.

In short, essential for fans, although others may first want to sample his recorded legacy.

Bert Bailey

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