Rahsaan Roland Kirk was many things, but let’s clear one thing up first – he was a genius. There are those who would tell you that because he sought to entertain as well as enlighten that his art is somehow lesser than the intensely serious music of a John Coltrane, a Miles Davis, a Cecil Taylor. But really, he’s in a line with Duke Ellington, with Charles Mingus, with Louis Armstrong – not exactly bad company to keep. He was also a remarkable jazz saxophonist (and player of other reeds as well), on a level with any of the greats you’d care to name, often using two or three (or more) horns simultaneously to create his own horn section. You can hear that right off the bat here with “The Black and Crazy Blues,” or most spectacularly on the title cut, where he contributes a gorgeous, tender solo interspersed with a gripping, multi-horn fanfare. And if you want to check out one of his tricks of technique that allowed him a unique approach to his soloing, listen to the extended improvisational line he lays down on “Many Blessings.” He just doesn’t stop to take a breath, because he uses a technique of circular breathing to draw in and exhale air at the same time. It’s not the first time he does it here, but it stands out here because the song is a more straightforward blowing tune. He’s also a traditionalist. You can hear that here most readily in his elegant reading of Duke Ellington’s “The Creole Love Song” and in the relatively restrained quartet music that makes up the bulk of this album, which ranges from light and lovely to the emotional intensity of “The Inflated Tear” itself.
But Rahsaan was also an avant-gardist in the sense that he was always pushing boundaries to find new ways to express himself; a surrealist joker always tweaking the noses of those who thought he could or should do things one specific way; a vaudevillian who knew how to elicit cheers of delight from audiences while still staying musically interesting. And that’s where the second album here comes in. Atlantic Records, Kirk’s musical home for many years, encouraged his experimental bent – the producer of The Inflated Tear even reports being a little disappointed when Kirk turned in the first album that didn’t showcase his wilder, woollier side. But after a string of great (and mostly out of print) releases for the label, Kirk fulfilled the experimental side of his destiny with Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata. At first these two albums – one of his nicest, cleanest, and best and one of his weirdest – seem to be strange bedfellows, but after a few listens, even the oddness of the later album just seems like Kirk’s quirks applied to a great set of songs, and the underlying eccentricities of his personality shine through on the seemingly “normal” earlier album. And what’s so weird about the second album? Well, excepting some mostly percussive support from a couple friends, Kirk plays every single instrument – and he’s credited with 18 plus “bird sounds” (including the “black mystery pipes” which he describes as “a piece of bamboo and a yard long metal tube – two pipes are played simultaneously.”) – by himself, live in the studio, without overdubs. It must have been the most amazing one-man-band show ever seen, and the fact that he actually made a terrific, albeit odd, album out of it just goes back again to show the level at which his genius operated. Mostly he’s recording his own tunes, again working the serious, the funny, the surreal, and the sentimental right alongside each other, and again he uses Duke Ellington as a touchstone, employing another non-percussive instrument (a piano) for the only time on the record, and creating a gorgeous duet that contextualizes the rest of Kirk’s songs on the album within a larger continuum of jazz and other black music and culture, one in which he’s not the sideshow figure he’s sometimes made out to be, but one of the true giants of the music.
The Inflated Tear is certainly the place to start with Kirk – it’s one of his best recorded, best conceived and loveliest album, but time has shown that even if Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata sold poorly in its first run, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was absolutely right in his conception, and created a really brilliant work there, even if it leaves some listeners in the dust. They’ll catch up one day.- Patrick Brown