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1517 W. Fullerton Ave, Chicago IL 60614 USA
September of 2008, Derek Monypeny, guitarist of the Oakland-based
band Oaxacan and
friend of Blastitude, accompanied Hisham Mayet of Sublime
Frequencies on a business & field research trip
to Morocco. The following is a multimedia account of Derek’s
trip. All photos and video clips presented in this diary
were shot by Derek, except where otherwise noted.
signs on the wall are unclear, so they draw you in, like
strange lights on the horizon. And by the time you see that
they are nothing like you expected, it’s too late:
you have already crossed the threshold.” - Erik
Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (33 1/3 series),
devoured on the flight from Oakland
get older I find myself drawn more and more to alien, disorienting
situations and states of being. I’m not talking about
the substance-induced Rimbaudian “derangement of the
senses” train that so enthralled douches like Jim
Morrison (Rimbaud was a very special kid, but a kid he was).
I’m talking about unclear signs on the wall. I’m
talking about breaking down way out of town and nobody much
likes your face, Triple-A doesn’t exist, cell phones
don’t exist, your diapers don’t fit any more
so start walking. And that’s exactly where I want
to be: up shit’s creek, hoping a donkey cart comes
Yet, as devoted
and as committed as I am to what Gocher called “disoriental
philosophy,” the unknown is never an easy thing to
gear up for. I needed some psychic reassurance, so before
I headed out I made sure to pay my respects to Horus.
The stern, omniscient
benevolence of Horus first entered my consciousness while
visiting his temple in Edfu on the banks of the Nile 2 years
ago, and his presence as a talisman in my life has grown
ever since. As I go through life I feel his epoch-transcending
Eye, wrenched from him by his brother Set, boring through
my vanities and ineptitude like a diamond cutter.
believed that, while they wore the crown, no matter what
alien territories they would visit in the course of their
reigns, Horus always had their backs. So, in the surely
vain hope that he would continue to have mine, I went to
the Met to visit him in the museum’s vast Egyptian
collection. And after a brief consultation I left satisfied
and at peace.
no way you’re going to believe me, and in fact you
shouldn’t, but the truth is that later this same night,
during a drunken ramble through the East Village, I was
walking down Ave. B when I happened to look across the street
and directly into the Horus Café. I didn’t
even know the place existed. The Eye at the top of the large,
brightly painted café façade stared right
at me. I felt myself relax.
Staring down the ages outside his temple in Edfu.
author in consultation, Metropolitan Museum, NY. Photo:
only going to be here for a short time to get a couple of
loose ends tied before heading to Essaouira and the true
beginning of our trip. There’s plenty to see and do
here, though. Across the street from our hotel is an absolutely
mind-boggling record store called Le Comptoire Marocain
de Distribution de Discques. It is open for business during
the day despite Ramadan. I feast my eyes on not one, but
two walls full of mint, unplayed Om Khaltoum LPs - probably
200 in all. There is a huge selection of vinyl, both LPs
and singles, along with stacks of cassettes and beautiful
box sets containing recordings of Koranic verse. When I
come back here for the last leg of my trip, I will do some
damage in this store.
for a place to eat dinner near Casa Port, Hisham and I get
a spontaneous ride in the back of a motorcycle cab. Our
feet dangle off the back as we haul ass down side streets
near the old medina, not slowing for speedbumps. The driver
stops and picks up 3 of his buddies - fishermen whose clothes
appear to have been entirely subsumed by fetid salt water
and fish entrails. The night is beautiful and we’re
all laughing. The driver ends up taking us to a tiny dive
about half a mile from the place we told him to take us.
It’s his friend’s joint. We eventually made
it to our original destination for a great meal, but I wish
we would’ve stayed at the little spot where he took
Night time in
Casa during Ramadan is bustling, cafes jammed with men drinking
tea and playing cards. No one is drinking alcohol, which
keeps things rather subdued. We’re glad we had the
foresight to buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red at JFK.
Majestic, a high-energy dance band consisting of percussion,
keyboard, a vocalist, and a bowed stringed instrument I
couldn’t identify is in full flight. The percussionist
and vocalist do call-and-response soul shouts and the guy
on that bowed thing starts tapping the spirit of Tony Conrad.
The music steadily builds in speed and intensity. Some couples
get up and dance. Everyone is bitterly sober. The music
hits a huge crescendo and ends abruptly, quickly replaced
by sappy pre-recorded keyboard bumper music. The band takes
five. We decide we need to find a beer somewhere.
As a young boy,
I often hypnotized myself by staring out of moving car windows
at rows of lettuce crops. The long, straight bars of earth
would sway, as each one was approached and passed, in a
perfectly consistent sweeping motion. I would stare at these
rows and a vast, clicking drone would slowly swamp my mind.
After a series
of insane cluster-humps getting out of Casa, the long bus
trip became strikingly reminiscent of bus trips I had taken
in Egypt: one-lane highway, no streetlights, no billboards,
the eerie movie-set experience of pulling into small towns
with no people at all outside. We stop for food in the town
of Safi, and sitting at a grim snack bar there the trip
becomes real to me.
a couple hours of our arrival in Essaouira, things get happening.
Jamel Babamer, a Gnaoua musician whose great thumping style
on the gimbri and delicate vocals can be seen and
heard on Hisham’s Musical Brotherhoods of the
Trans-Saharan Highway DVD, meets us at the bus station.
He takes us to the apartment he has arranged for us here
- a funky but spacious place that contains a large sitting
room perfect for performance and recording sessions. Essaouira
is a spectacular coastal town on the Atlantic, and the rejuvenating
salt air and easily accessible Speciale Flag beer make us
forget Casa quickly.
a huge dinner, we end up at a party. Instruments are out,
the endless tea is poured, and kif is on everyone’s
lips. Jamel gets his gimbri out, rhythm is tapped
out on CD jewel cases, and the music begins.
out that one of the guys here is the son of one of the founding
members of Nass El Ghiwane, Morocco’s most influential
and beloved band for more than 30 years. Hanging out with
this guy in Morocco would be somewhat akin to jamming with
Keith Richards’ son in England. He grabs the gimbri
and starts playing and singing Nass songs, songs as familiar
and as nourishing to Moroccans as oxygen. The effect is
absolutely spellbinding - the tea, the smoke, the fellowship,
the beauty of the singing and playing. I sit back and know
exactly why Hisham devotes his life to this.
era Nass El Ghiwane CD. Every track on this disc is a fucking
We spend the
following afternoon with Jamel. Hisham has asked him to
provide track titles and information for recordings they
had done a couple of years previous.
music is played to accompany a complex liturgy called lila
or derdeba. Its intent is to call seven saints
and supernatural entities, as represented by seven colors.
Jamel listens back to the songs Hisham recorded and begins
identifying them by color, with black, white and green seeming
to be the most common colors. No blues.
is thrilled to listen to these old recordings of himself,
shouting to hear himself speak in the time-honored tradition
of people listening to loud music on headphones, inducing
peals of laughter from Hisham and me. “THIS SONG IS
WHITE SONG. IT TALK ABOUT THE SAINTS OF ISLAM. ALL DIFFERENT
SAINTS I AM SINGING ABOUT!!!”
then asks Jamel to identify other songs, songs Hisham recorded
in Marrakech at the Jemaa al Fna, the incomparable nightly
celebration of Moroccan culture captured so stunningly in
the Musical Brotherhoods film. Jamel is familiar
with the songs, which all seem to cover eternal territory:
“THIS SONG THEY ARE SAYING: ‘MY LOVE, WHY YOU
of the Jemaa al Fna songs Jamel identifies has a particularly
beautiful conceit, which I have thought about every day
since: “THIS SONG THEY ARE SAYING: ‘I ASKED
THE OUD AND THE NEY ABOUT YOU. THEIR MELODIES ARE TELLING
ME ALL ABOUT YOU.’”
first official recording session happens on this night.
He records Jamel playing gimbri and singing, along with
a friend of his, Mahoumed, on percussion. The performance
is good overall, and spirited at points. We are happy to
have found performing musicians so easily and consistently
in Essaouira. Our luck would continue in this regard, with
another great recording session the following night.
made, connections established and re-established, it is
time to leave the comfort of Essaouira and take another
long bus ride to an obscure desert town where neither of
us had ever been, a place where we knew nobody. The gateway
to the Sahara: Guelmim.
(La Porte du Sahara)
Guelmim, 2003. Guitar: Abdullah Chmairan. Video source unknown.
Over the past
year or so, I have developed a passionate interest in the
guitar music of Mauritania and Western Sahara. In the course
of my research, I have discovered that the scorching guitar
playing you hear on the Group Doueh LP is just the tip of
exists a relatively small but thriving community of Sahrawi
(Saharan) guitarists in both of these places, very few of
whom have ever performed or recorded in any official capacity.
These guitarists play in many different styles and modes,
but the style that has most captured my heart is known as
Jakwar. Developed in the mid-70s by the pioneering Mauritanian
tidinit virtuoso Jheich ould Abba, Jakwar is modern,
fast dance music, played at parties and wedding receptions.
Played on guitar, Jakwar takes the form of incredibly driving,
distorted, raw, howling modal sciroccos filtered through
dust speakers. All it takes is one blast of a song played
in the Jakwar style from a cheap cassette, or encountering
it by chance on a Youtube clip, and the squeaky-clean high-life
paradigm of African guitar is powdered into Sahara dust.
born and raised in the Arizona desert, and I have taken
great inspiration from desert guitarists whose playing so
perfectly reflected their surroundings in its gnarled beauty,
and all-pervasive individualism: Richard Bishop, Zoot Horn
Rollo, Curt Kirkwood, Jesus Acedo, Bob Log III, and Howe
Gelb to name a few. It has been a revelation for me to discover
that spirit in Sahrawi guitar playing, in artists such as
Seddoum ould Eide, Hammadi ould Nana, Luleide ould Dendenni,
and in the man whose playing is on display in the Youtube
clip above - Abdullah Chmairan.
I stumbled across
that clip sometime early this year, and knew immediately
that Guelmim needed to be on the agenda for our trip. I
was determined to try and find Chmairan, to see and hear
him play Jakwari music in person. After he saw the clip,
it didn’t take long for Hisham to agree. With no knowledge
of the place whatsoever, the plan was to get there and figure
Hisham and I
hit Guelmim on a warm mid-September evening and immediately
cause a minor stir. We’re the subjects of many stares
and some great outright gawking from the locals as we walk
through the bustling Ramadan dark.
I think I am the only white devil in this whole town. Literally
the only one.
In contrast to Essaouira with its contingent of Euro beach
tourists, Ramadan is observed seriously by everyone here.
There is no food to be had in the daytime, and no alcohol
to be had at any time; the JFK Johnnie Walker Red is immediately
back in the race. There is no ice to be had either.
It is awe-inspiring to see the Saharawi men in their blue
and gold (or sometimes white and gold) robes all around
town. Uncountable desert time is etched in deep, vivid detail
on their rivuleted faces. Desert bretheren; vast craggy
aged majestic beings. I can’t describe the way it
feels to have one of these guys look right at you. I’ll
never forget it.
After a day of
acclimation and wandering, we get down to the business of
looking for musicians in general, and Chmairan in particular.
We have one thing to go on: a CD Hisham owns which was manufactured
in Guelmim and has an address on the back.
arrival in town seems to have been noted by almost everybody,
including of course the requisite hustlers and con men,
who can’t wait to pounce. These guys are waiting at
the first place we go to inquire about music in Guelmim.
They offer to be our guides, to show us around. We drop
the one name we know. Of course they know Chmairan.
They’ll even take us to him! When? Right now! Hisham
and I figure we’ll go along with it for the time being,
and as it turns out these shysters actually deliver the
goods; after a short walk through the streets we find ourselves
at the home of Abdullah Chmairan himself!
attempts to set up a recording session with Chmairan and
his band, Group Baab Sahara, for later that day. The “guides,”
who have quickly promoted themselves to band managers, start
throwing outrageous prices around. Hisham ignores them.
Arrangements are made, and later that day the session takes
seems to be taking a toll on Chmairan. His playing during
the session displays little of the serrated fire on display
in the wedding party performance. But he sounds great nonetheless;
snaky, flowing, swirling (a weathered old Boss Super Phaser
is engaged at all times), psychedelic as fuck. Towards the
end of the session he summons up some reserves, climbs to
his feet, and starts cutting up, playing behind his head
while dancing a Sahrawi jig, accompanied by frenzied clapping.
Chmairan, dreaming of the cigarette he’ll smoke once
Sahara. Note the blue and white Sahrawi robes.
day after this session, Hisham pays the band and sorts out
various problems brought on by the "guides." Afterwards,
we take Chmairan to an Internet café. We show him
his Youtube performance, and explain to him that this is
what brought us here. We try to communicate to him that
his blown-out sound on the clip is exactly what we are looking
for; Hisham taps his heart with his hand to communicate
his love for it. Chmairan smiles as he watches, but says
nothing about his own performance. He explains that the
dance the men are doing in the clip is “the dance
of the palm trees.” It’s the most beautiful
moment of the trip.
by Hisham Mayet.
The next day
is my last full day in Guelmim. We rent a taxi to take us
to the desert. We get out of the car and take some shots
of a group of scrawny goats being led by a solitary goatherd.
Sand and sky phase themselves out before us.
to some tent dwellings. Bones and skulls of unidentified
beings are all around the tents. I keep thinking about my
own desert roots, my own thorny, isolated nature. I cannot
say if the singular beauty and mystery of the desert is
within me as well; I can only say that I feel it very strongly
in this place.
I leave town, I have one last round of tea with some locals
who have been friendly with us during our stay. One of the
men, Idir, is a trans-Saharan trader who has spent his life
traveling via camel in caravans from Nouakchott to Guelmim
and all desert points in between, collecting and selling
Sahrawi jewelry and antiques. I ask to pose for a picture
with Idir and another man, whose name also happens to be
Hisham. Before the picture is snapped, Idir puts his blue
headscarf over my head, the scarf that he has worn to protect
his head and face through many desert jaunts. As I turn
afterward to hand it back to him, he tells me that it belongs
to me now. I won’t reproduce the picture here: I’m
going to keep it, and the scarf, to myself.
and I would part ways in Guelmim; from there he went on
to Dakhla to re-connect with Group Doueh in preparation
for their May 2009 tour of the UK/Europe with Omar Souleyman
(please see http://www.sublimefrequencies.com/eurotour.html
for tour dates and information), and I made my way to Marrakech
and the Jemaa al Fna.
seen the Musical Brotherhoods film you’ve
seen the Jemaa, but you haven’t had a live cobra stare
you down; you haven’t followed the process of monkey
hypnosis; you haven’t had 2 Diamanda Galas belly dancers
in bright red dresses and black hoods freak out to a screaming
shenai-and-3-percussion exorcism and then get right in your
face and demand your money; you haven’t heard
the feedback of a shredding amplified oud while 30 Moroccans
sing at the top of their lungs; you haven’t tasted
the lamb sausages or the ubiquitous fresh orange juice;
you haven’t watched centuries-old Moroccan folktales
performed by possessed children, dwarves, and horrific creaking
puppets; you haven’t been stared at by locals who
wonder what you’re doing there at all; you haven’t
bartered a salesman for a children’s toy train with
a George Bush action figure chasing an Osama bin Laden action
figure around an endless circular track…and you definitely
haven’t putted on the miniature golf course.
say I’ve done it. You probably haven’t - but
it isn’t too late, you know.
on the front of the rug, left-hand side
mind-frying elation of my first experience of the Jemaa
is tempered severely the next night; there’s a heavy
rain, and none of the performers show up. This was my only
other night in town; tomorrow it’s back to Casa and
I walk by the
cinema at some point during my last night here, feeling
a million things but mostly weariness and disappointment,
and I hear “Sugar, Sugar” coming from one of
the many alleys. The acoustics of the alley make the song
boom and echo through me.
This song has
always been and always will be a perfect work of art and
for some reason, probably to do with my extreme fatigue,
this context gives it an extra resonance. After everything
I’ve seen and heard it’s like experiencing a
different rung of heaven entirely. The song comes to an
end and I feel an onrush of emotions. I find a dark spot
in the alley and break down quietly.
Last Day In Morocco
says: It is I who traverse the heaven. I go round the Sekhet-Aaru.
Eternity has been assigned to me without end. Lo! I am the
heir of endless time, and my attribute is eternity.
to Hisham Mayet and Matthew Lavoie
for teaching me & making everything about this trip
FROM THE WHISTLEMAN A Guide to the LPs of Rahsaan Roland
should be getting some sleep or something, but I feel like
writing, and I don't feel like writing about the stuff I
gotta write about. Since you asked before, and since I'm
more obsessed with the guy than ever, I thought I'd tell
you about the TWENTY EIGHT records I've bought in the last
few months by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Yep...full-blown 2008
obsession! Yes, I've still been collecting and listening
to Dead live tapes, and I did finish Searching
for the Sound recently (overall verdict: some good info,
but I also kind of learned more about Phil than I wanted
to. More on that sometime soon), but it's hard to shake
the truth -- my summer has been the summer (and now fall,
and winter) of Kirk, big time! Since this is all I listen
to when I'm not bashing out reviews or feature stories for
ALAP (diagnosis: still going strong!), I figured
I'd give you a little listener's guide, including some good
places to dip your toe in if you just wanna hear one or
albums, in rough chronological order:
debut was alternately titled Triple Threat
(on King Records), Third Dimension (reissued on
Bethlehem Records) and Early Roots (many reissues,
most recently Get Back!). Released originally in 1956, four
years before what most people consider his "debut."
I saw an original pressing of Triple Threat in
mint condition go for almost $800 on Ebay last summer. (In
your face, New Blockaders!) Because King Records was mostly
an R&B label, and because Kirk was working as a honker/bar-walker
in small-town Ohio, this is mostly a straight-ahead R&B
date, with a few jazzy ballads tossed in for when you want
to slow-dance with your lady friend. Kirk's horn attack
was limited to only two horns at a time here, and he whips
it out pretty regularly over a good, snappy rhythm section
who swing pretty damned hard (what's up, Henry Duncan?!)
over a batch of mostly originals and some high-profile covers.
A strange and controversial decision was made on this album
to have Roland overdub multiple horn lines, largely unheard
of in jazz at this time. I don't know what to make of it
-- to start with, Kirk's multi-horn style is generally more
"lead with harmony" style, and only in rare soloing
situations does he really play two completely different
melodies simultaneously. Here, it's pretty obvious that
the main solo and the underlying solo were played at two
different times. It's amazing that Kirk can play two and
three horns at once, but he can't do it THIS effectively!
As such, the overdubbing (on "Stormy Weather,"
no less!) seems excessive for someone who is already well
beyond the talents of most humans!
Roland Kirk (1960): Released
four years after the debut, and the woodshedding has paid
off. Coming out of "primitive Ohio" as he called
it (Columbus, to be precise) and making his way as a bar-walking
R&B honking tenor, Kirk still leads a group that's primarily
soul/R&B based. He's matched by another multi-instrumentalist,
Ira Sullivan, though I don't know that Sullivan actually
plays more than one thing at once (he plays trumpet and
tenor sax on this date). Kirk's unaccompanied three-part
harmonization of his horns at the start of the first track
("The Call") is sort of a gesture of defiance...top
this, motherfuckers! It's also a heckuva lot more assured
than any reed gymnastics he attempts on the first. The rest
of the record is no slouch, either, though it's VERY inside...basically
more soul/blues/R&B than jazz most of the time. What
I'm finding, though, is that Kirk is often at his best when
he's playing straight, just as Sun Ra can be just as satisfying
and beautiful when he's doing trad stuff as when he goes
way out. Unlike Ra, though, some of Kirk's inside stuff
is GENUINELY inside and trad, and it's still great on its
own merits! You also get to hear the occasional blast of
Kirk's omnipresent whistle (which he usually uses as punctuation,
or to indicate that he's done with his solo) and some of
those LONG solo lines that come from his skills in circular
breathing (he claimed he was able to breathe in not only
through his nose, but also his ears!).
Work (1961): Like Triple
Threat, the music on this date is available in many
forms and repackages, the most economical (though not the
most aesthetically pleasing) is a 2LP repackaging on Prestige
titled Pre-Rahsaan, which includes a bonus LP by
longtime Kirk sideman Jaki Byard, on which Kirk is featured
heavily). Other versions of this record are titled Kirk's
Work and Funk Underneath. The record features
an instrument little heard in Kirk's group, the organ, courtesy
one "Brother" Jack McDuff. Lots of Kirk originals
on here, some fast rhumbas and many more tinges of madness,
all anchored down by McDuff's HUGE organ sound -- he sounds
like he's leaning on the keys with his elbows, while Kirk
unleashes long, wailing, circular-breath lines of solo flight,
egging each other on like two heavyweight boxers, continually
swinging, but showing no signs of exhaustion. This is a
big date, and although it's fun, it's also kind of shrill
-- it gave my girlfriend a headache, and her Kirk threshold
is usually pretty high! Although I kind of hate the cover
layout on the Prestige repackaging, I highly recommended
it if it's around, because the second LP, The Jaki Byard
Experience, also fetches big money on Ebay by itself,
and is unquestionably recommended to all with ears. More
on Jaki later.
Free Kings (1961): This is
the first really straight-ahead JAZZ record he did, and
it shows a heavy John Coltrane influence. That influence
is a good thing on the many of the solos, where it becomes
obvious that, even without the crazy techniques and multi-horning
and flute overblowing/sputtering, Kirk could modally improvise
on tenor like a mother! The Coltrane influence is a bad
thing in that he really got into the idea of Coltrane jazzifying
standards, and here does it with "We Three Kings"
(hence the album title). Gotta say, it comes off pretty
derivative! The best reason to hear this one, though, is
the track "You Did It, You Did It." It's a track
where Kirk shows off his unique flute-playing style in full
force. I'm sure you've heard him -- he talks, sings, sputters,
and flails through the flute, providing a huge source of
ripoff power for Ian Anderson, Thijs Van Leer of Focus and
others. "You Did It" is pretty deranged for a
track recorded in 1961, but the rendition on the Joel Dorn-produced
vault-tracks compilation The Man Who Cried Fire,
is really worth tracking down. Kirk sounds like he's exorcising
ghosts through his flute, as all sorts of hilarious, profane,
funky, terrifying groans and wails come buzzing through.
Great cover on this, too... I can only imagine what the
prim and proper jazzbos thought when they saw this crazy
bastard huffin' into a flute with a ring of horns hanging
around his neck like some sort of giant brass breastplate!
(1962): Freewheeling. That's the term that keeps
coming into my head with this album. It's freewheeling.
Sounds like killer early '60s bounce and roll, like Sonny
Rollins, Eric Dolphy, or Lacy playing a Monk tune. Domino
makes the album before it look a bit stiff. "Meeting
on Termini's Corner," a song about the Five Spot (where
Kirk's band was currently in residence) just had that bouncy
assurance, that "modern" feel that came after
bebop's spiraling arpeggiating braggadocio, but before free
totally serious'd up the joint. Contains "3-in-1 Without
the Oil," another of Kirk's "fast vamp" tunes.
Kirk has this one compositional style that he keeps coming
back to, the rhythm section playing double time, his riffs
breaking down into a couple of hard hits, a pause, and then
another quick jabs. Baaa-ba-da-da (pause) Ba-DAAA-Da! Others
in this style included "Three For the Festival"
(on the previous record) and "One Ton" (on Volunteered
Slavery). It's hard to explain in words, but once you've
heard a few, you know it. It's a Kirk trademark. Also: these
next few records (on Mercury) are among the hardest to find
on original vinyl, and unless you're willing to take a copy
with a messed-up cover like I did, you can expect to pay
at least $60 for a copy of this. (The CD version has tons
of alternate takes and unheard tunes, expanding the eight
tracks of the original up to a whopping 18!)
& Deeds (1962): Even
harder to find than Domino! The cover shows Kirk
blowing away while a trumpet and a trombone are aimed at
either ear, and as visually promised, this is the Kirk group
with a brass section (or at least a trumpet and trombone
player). Tenor saxist and composer Benny Golson provides
and awful lot of orchestration and arrangement here, and
as a result, the compositions seem a lot more vibrant than
Kirk's usual fare. Kirk is a hell of a songwriter, and he's
got a style that's impossible to miss, but listening to
Golson and the way he arranges the material, it's much easier
to hear things that are missing in Kirk's work in general.
Like Domino above, the band seems to really be
reveling in the act of making music, and all these songs
swing like hell. Also, though Kirk likes to shoehorn little
allusions to other songs in many of his records, there seems
to be more alluding going on here than in most -- I heard
"This Old Man," "Row Row Your Boat"
(done Caribbean-style, no less!) and "What The World
Needs Now," among others that were just on the tip
of my tongue. Not commonly available, and maybe not top-10
essential, but damned entertaining.
Kirk Meets the Benny Golson Orchestra
(1963): I hadn't heard Golson before hearing him
with Kirk, but he seems to be one of those lone figures
in the wilderness who was carving out something new at a
time when jazz equaled quartet (or quintet or, gasp, sextet
if you were feeling extravagant). Like Charles Mingus, Gil
Evans, and especially Oliver Nelson, Golson was a descendant
of Duke Ellington, scoring his luxurious works for larger
groups at a time when lean 'n' mean was the watchword. Speaking
of big band, he and Kirk cover Mingus' "Ecclusiastics"
with gusto right out of the starting gate! Side one has
the orchestra, but side two is just the Kirk quartet. This
contains some of the first flowerings of a more abstract
style, including a two minute track simply called "Abstract
Improvisation." It's not the best, but it's damn good.
The best thing about it, actually, is the incredible cover
drawing, which just represents everything I love about classic
jazz-age album covers!
in Copenhagen (1963): Just
like with the Dead, it turns out the best way to capture
the essence of the awesomeness of Kirk is to record him
live! This is where you get to see Kirk stretch out, chat
with the audience, cut up a little bit, and just play his
ass off before an appreciative crowd. It's a great, spirited
example of the best part of his music. It's also, sadly,
a quite truncated version of the whole concert! A limited
2CD version was briefly released which contained the whole
90 minute performance (two performances, actually!), something
I'm keen on tracking down. Still, the six tracks here give
a good variety of his emerging styles, from the debts to
Mingus ("Mingus-Griff Song") and Ellington (a
gorgeous "Mood Indigo") to his own funky compositions
like "Narrow Bolero." It's not quite Live/Dead,
but that one's coming soon...
& Messages (1964): Just
listened to this one again tonight! This is the first really
fully realized fusion of "inside" and "outside"
elements, where Kirk really comes into his own voice. His
best stuff is accessible enough to appeal even to people
who don't really get into heavy-duty modal improvisation
or free-jazz dissonance, but within it still beats the heart
of a very strange man. For example, there's a long, heavily
out of tune horn trio that Kirk works his way through on
side one that may have you checking to make sure your turntable
hasn't fallen out of alignment! On side two, Kirk plays
along with a music box playing "Swan Lake" (a
technique he'd come back to again and again...apparently
Kirk had collected a rather breathtaking collection of music
boxes from all over the world in his travels) before fracturing
it into a fast-bop rendition with full band that keeps the
exact same chord structure but somehow manages to sound
even crazier than Public Image's own version of "Swan
Lake" (talkin' about "Death Disco" off of
Second Edition, y'know)! This record also has one
of my favorite individual Kirk tunes, the totally badass
"Hip Chops." It's a great, flute driven, rollicking
riff that ends with Kirk yelling "Who's got the hippest
chops in the world!?", I guess as some sort of boast/challenge.
I like all of the albums I've heard so far, but this is
the most fully realized, and has the fewest drop-out moments
of any album so far.
Talk With the Spirits (1964):
A first big push into attempted commerciality, which, like
all his other attempts to write "a hit," turns
out to be cosmically weird and amazing. This is an all-flute
album! No horns, no whistles, just flute. Apparently, Kirk
HATED Herbie Mann, because he said that only a white man
would be able to make a career out of playing JUST flute!
He was always challenging Herbie to flute duels, which Mann
wisely never accepted. Actually, for all the crazy talk,
there's a lot of beautiful sounds on here, and most of the
album is pretty ballads played, at one point or another,
on very understated, sweet and gentle flute styles. But
not all -- there's plenty of sputtering, singing/moaning/buzzing
through the flute and all manner of glottal craziness to
recommend this. Contains a lot of covers, as usual: a track
from Funny Girl, A Modern Jazz Quartet cover, some
Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill. Bit of this, bit of that. Plus
his song "Serenade to a Cuckoo," covered by Jethro
Tull on their first album. Ahem.
Rig & Panic (1965): Oh
DAMN! Definitely a pinnacle, a top 5-er, a top-end-of-the-bell-curve
Kirk release in all ways, most notably in the lineup! Kirk's
got one of his best, and best known, bands on this date,
including Richard Davis on bass, the totally mindblowing
Jaki Byard on piano, and…hold your breath…ELVIN
JONES on drums…Ka-POW! It's a muscular and supple
group, as you'd imagine. "No Tonic Pres," named
after Lester "Pres" Young and copping one of his
tunes that was written without a tonic note ("some
people might think I'm talking about a drink here"
says Kirk in the liner notes) is a hell of an opener, a
modal-sounding riff that just coils around and around, all
sorts of colors and flavors suggested by the piano/bass
interlock. It's one of those tracks where you really stand
up and take notice not just of Kirk, but of Byard, who will
just start hammering on the keys like Cecil or McCoy, and
then, in the break, will suddenly flip into some perfectly-played,
un-affected stride boogie, bringing you back another 20
years or more, before a "phwee!" from Kirk's whistle
snaps everything back to the tune. Byard and Kirk got along
famously because they both loved the old forms, but were
pushing ever forward. Byard later featured Kirk on one of
his solo albums, The Jaki Byard Experience, which,
as I mentioned above, is featured as a twofer with an early
Kirk platter as Pre-Rahsaan. The rest of Rip,
Rig & Panic just gets better and better, especially
Kirk's (and Byard's) impressive tribute to, and amazing
emulation of, three early jazz pioneers on "From Bechet,
Fats, and Byas," and the totally underrated 2:30 jam
"Mystical Dream," my pick for Kirk's catchiest
riff. Side two is one of Kirk's out-est yet, with allusions
to Varese in the intros to both the title track (listen
to Davis and Kirk overblow and spectrally bow their instruments…almost
sounds like AMM!) and "Slippery, Hippery, Flippery,"
which also contains a few uncharacteristic blats of electronic
sound/noise via tape recorders. As Kirk explains, "Some
of the sounds I made with my horn; the rhythm section was
playing free. Some of the tape sounds I got around the house
-- wind chimes, my voice amplified, the baby hollering.
I slowed down some of the sounds then played them all together.
The head is written off a computer; I used the cycle of
notes from a computer I once heard to make the line."
From start to end, this record pulls together so many of
Kirk's influences, preferences, and styles, it's hard not
to think of it as a definitive statement. So, let's call
it a definitive statement! It jams like hell, too.
Comes the Whistleman (1965):
A live-in-the-studio-with-invited-audience "live"
album, one of those deals where the group gets to have its
cake (clear studio sound) and eat it too (play off the energy
of a live audience). One of the engineers comes into the
session late, blaming rush-hour traffic in New York. "You
shoulda let me drive, I woulda got you here on time!"
says Kirk, ho ho. Although generally a highly regarded album,
this one doesn't grab me like some of the others. It is
noteworthy for the appearance of the title track, where
Kirk gives out whistles to everyone in the audience, requesting
that they blow them throughout the piece, or as the moment
seems right. So, while this boppy little groover plays,
there's this constant, high-pitched wheedle as 10 or 20
people toodle away on toy whistles. A nice trick. With Byard
on piano again, it's well worth hearing, but I have other
live favorites at this point.
Meeting of the Times (w/ Al Hibbler)
(1965): WEIRD! Here, Kirk duets with another blind
guy, a vocalist from Duke Ellington's band of yore, and
they do some really old jazz standards. Personally, I normally
hate jazz vocals -- I'll just say that up front. Most of
that "twee ooooh squee oh weeeee ooooh wahhh!"
Kurt Elling school of overly emotional, almost Emo style
of crooning really bugs me. No worries here -- Hibbler has
a gruff, deep voice that has a lot of wear in it, largely
free of excessive ornamentation, and is just plain enjoyable
to listen to! On the one song where someone who isn't Al
Hibbler sings, you can really tell how much Hibbler adds
to the arrangements. My copy has a lot of…well, let's
say it's had a good, happy life, and has had plenty of turntable
time! It was obviously an old DJ copy, and probably a copy
that someone spun at dances, as it has all sorts of arcane
marks next to different tracks, including one track that
has the word "STEPPERS!" written next to it in
large letters. The same word appears on the front cover,
on a piece of masking tape. STEPPERS! What does it mean?
Latin (1965): The Limelight
label must have had MONEY TO BURN back then, because this
is straight up one of the most deluxe, most beautiful, most
lovingly packaged albums I own. Even by modern standards,
where every limited-edition vinyl package is wrapped up
in tissue paper and cheesecloth and the skin of rare fishes
and housed in a limited edition gold foil overlay, handed
to you with a certificate of authenticity and a pat on the
head, this one still feels cooler somehow. It comes in a
thick, thick gatefold sleeve, with a textured cover showing
a psychedelic image of woman's face. The LP is in one of
those archival green sleeves, too! Heavy pressing. But most
amazing of all is the gatefold inside. When you open it
up, you're greeted to a little booklet, stapled right into
the inside of the cover, a 6" x 6" booklet with
liner notes and scads of photos of women's faces with all
manner of psychedelic effects all over them (kind of like
the oil/water effects on the projectors at Jefferson Airplane
shows). Tough typography, too…could just as easily
be Dada as Summer of Love. I can't describe it adequately
to tell you how damn cool the whole thing is! Seamless and
beautifully conceived. Best of all, the music is just as
badass -- as the title implies, there's a Latin/lounge music
vibe to this, including a cover of Bacharach's "Walk
On By." It's played at a frenzied pace, though, with
Kirk screaming "Walk it out! C'mon, yeah, walk!"
during all the vamp parts. There's Esquivel-style female
choral vocals going "ah! ah!" all over the place,
Brazillian percussion, and all manner of "cool"
elements that just seem so amazing and weird and funky here.
No surprise, Dusty Groove's web site praises the CD reissue
of this one to the heavens. It's another one of Kirk's most
anomalous records which paradoxically is one of his most
essential. (Limelight editions of I Talk With the Spirits
and Rip, Rig & Panic also exist -- I have Spirits
in this form, but an original Limelight of Panic
in good condition with all the die-cut trimming with put
you back about $120.)
Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith
(1967): Title a reference to his wife, who he just
recently divorced at the time. She was 15 years older than
him, and really did treat him like a mother, very much in
the wife/guardian role (think Nellie Monk for another contemporary
example). She's pictured on the cover, listening attentively
to Kirk as he plays his Stritch in what looks like their
living room. Kirk soon found himself receiving lots of attention
from younger females, something Edith couldn't stand and
Kirk couldn't resist. They broke up and she was left a broken
woman, turning to strong drink to ease her pain, in no small
part due to Kirk's womanizing and also his finally giving
her the heave-ho. I suppose this album was meant to smooth
it all out -- funny how artists always think you can just
put out a record with the name of someone whose life you
ruined on it, and everything's hunky dory again. It's one
of his more inside dates at this point, lots of smoothness
and sweetness, lots of R&B, including another Bacharach
cover, this time of "Alfie." Dude liked him some
Inflated Tear (1967): Considered
"best in show" by many, and it is damned impressive.
Again, this is a real leap for Kirk (it was also his debut
for Atlantic), in that he really comes back around to doing
stuff that's derived as much from the blues and pop and
soul as from jazz -- listen to this, and to Kirk's other
classic albums in the early '70s, and you can see how far
away we've come from the jazz orthodoxy on display circa
Domino. The sheer emotion of ballads/dirges like
"The Black & Crazy Blues" and the title track
are just impossibly heavy, like Richard Manuel singing "Tears
of Rage" on Big Pink. The title track is about
Kirk's blindness. He was born with sight, but began to lose
his sight as a baby. According to his liner notes, he was
under doctor's care, and doctors and nurses would put eyedrops
in his eyes. He says that when he was two, a nurse came
in who was "drunk or high or angry at someone, and
put too much medicine in my eyes," which he claims
caused him to lose his sight altogether. He spent many years
with eyes that would tear and water constantly and painfully,
and this track is full of eye-water and pain, with one of
his most doleful multi-horn riffs punctuating each section.
Seriously, the opening riff of this is every bit as terrifying/dolorous
as, I don't know, Orff or something. Despite all this heaviness,
the record is mostly buoyant and beautiful, and was one
of his best sellers ever. More Ellington ("Creole Love
Call") and a great, happy song for his four-year-old
son ("A Laugh for Rory"). A really good place
to start if you don't need to have every track be a multi-horn
wild-as-hell workout. "Black and Crazy Blues"'s
melody will be stuck in your head for days.
& Right (1968): Here's
where the "phase two" Roland steps in. The man
who is militant about the preservation of "Black Classical
Music" (his term for jazz) in all its styles and manifestations.
His concerns about Free Jazz, and how the modern players
ONLY can play free, but have no background in bebop or swing
or R&B or anything else. His synthesis of all eras of
jazz simultaneously. His outspokenness about race and American
politics -- it's all here. Side one is a 17 minute side-long
piece with a string section and a large band. They do a
medley of Kirk compositions, paying tribute to the San Francisco
scene, Mingus, Ellington, Roy Haynes, and "The Rites
of Spring," which is played on bassoon, flute, and
bowed bass! Side two contains covers of Billy Strayhorn,
Quincy Jones, and Dizzy Gillespie, and is pretty low-key
and often gorgeous -- it's sometimes hard to remember that
Kirk can play the hell out of a ballad too, when he's not
hammering out three melodies on three different horns at
once or detonating a flute with spittle. He tries this album
style again (a side long experimental track on side one,
standards on two) in 1970, with even better results, but
this is absolutely worth checking out to get the full Kirk
experience of the time.
Slavery (1968): THIS is the
one to start with, and the one I've listened to the most!
Side one has Kirk playing with a gospel choir on a few tracks,
as well as GREAT covers of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie
Amour" (with Kirk doing a hilarious wordless version
of the vocal line) and, best of all, another Bacharach tune,
"I Say A Little Prayer." Check this version out
we can see just about everything great about Roland Kirk
in the late '60s -- the groove, the pop standard turned
into rollicking minor-key dance party, the multiple-horn
lines, and Kirk's crazy-looking amish-bearded percussionist,
Joe "Habao" Texidor! (To say nothing of Ron Burton
on piano.) Also, watch for Kirk playing the chintziest of
all synths, the Stylophone, in the intro! (It's the thing
he's playing with the little pen.)
side two is even better. It's a live set from Newport, starting,
oddly enough, with the LAST song in Kirk's set. Huge crowd
reaction, it was obviously a hell of a set. The next act
takes the stage, then calls Kirk back out for an encore,
saying, "C'mon out, do an encore! Yeah, you can take
it out of my time!" The rest of the side is the encore,
during which Kirk proceeds to lay waste to an incredible
medley of Coltrane tunes, including "Afro Blue"
gone totally volcanic, before thrashing into "Three
for the Festival," one of his best live tracks, a tune
which sends the crowd into fits of hysteria as he screams
and wails and bangs gongs and honks freely through the thunderous
conclusion. This could actually get you on your feet and
jumping around your house in a bug-eyed frenzy, it's so
good. Check out Volunteered Slavery at all costs!!!
Rahsaan (1970): This is the
first LP where the former Roland Kirk becomes Rahsaan Roland
Kirk. It's not a Muslim name, or a family name, or anything
like that. He claims he heard it in a dream, numerous times.
People were calling to him, but calling the name "Rahsaan....
Rahsaan!" Thousands of people calling him by this name.
He decided to change his name the next day. This is also
his first album where his band has a name, the very Prince-esque
Vibration Society. As with Left & Right, side
one is a side-long suite that traces the lineage of Jazz
history, from modern back to ancient. Starting with some
very abstract squeaking and bonking that owes much to Varese,
but even more to the AACM (Leroy Jenkins plays violin here!),
Kirk and friends start out abstract, then jump back into
a modal, Coltrane-derived thing that sounds an awful lot
like "Rip, Rig & Panic." (The song, not the
Neneh Cherry-led band, of course.) He's got this way of
narrating the whole thing, changing the song up from suite
to suite by stopping the whole thing and going "Now
hold on, hold on, hold on! We gotta give some love to Charles
Mingus!" And then they launch into a Mingus-y thing.
Then it winds down, and he goes "Now wait a minute!
Ain't nobody giving any love to Charlie Parker these days!"
And then they all launch headlong into some Parkerian bebop.
And so on, until they get back to New Orleans turn-of-the-century
jazz/Dixieland-type stompin'. It's fun to hear fuckin' LEROY
JENKINS go backwards from screak-squeek-creak all the way
into Stephane Grapelli-style boppin' in the course of 15
minutes! Some of Kirk's extemporaneous monologues explain
what he was about at this point better than any bio. As
they're doing Charlie Parker, he starts yelling "Eric
Dolphy knew all about Charlie Parker! Ornette Coleman does,
too!" His point, again and again, is that the first
wave of Free Jazz musicians were still tied to tradition,
and still loved the old ways, but went forward to advance
the art, not because the old forms, bebop and "modern"
and rhythm 'n' blues were too square for them (there are
endless stories in all the popular histories of free jazz
about groups that would skronk out on record, then play
12-bar to the break of dawn). At that point around the turn
of the '70s, Kirk (and many others) feared that jazz traditions
were being lost, not only in popular culture, but also among
the "young lions." He would say, again and again,
that white European classical composers (many of whom he
loved too, though he was loathe to admit this in interview,
feeling that these folks already had enough love and respect)
weren't running any risk of forgetting about Bach or Beethoven
or Mozart, etc. and that Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington,
Don Byas, etc. were black Americans' equivalents, and that
they should be equally preserved.
Of course, none
of this analysis goes very far toward explaining how fun
this disc is! His rants are hilarious, including one where
he's sputtering around for his point, and actually says,
"Now wait a minute...you got all these people going
around, talking about, about, uh, apple pie, talking about,
talking about chocolate pie, talking about...you know, all
kinds of other things..." Yo...what?
two is more standards done live, and ends with the marvelous
"Baby, Let Me Shake Your Tree." Stuff like this
is mentioned in the book (Bright Moments, by John
Kruth), how Rahsaan would be up on stage, talking about
the dirtiest stuff imaginable, just being weird and grossly
sexual, like George Clinton at his skankiest, talking here
about a character called "Tonguesnatcher," who
had a tongue so long that he'd come to the door of his date's
house "with flowers in one hand, and his tongue in
the other." Band would be on stage with him, nervously
laughing, like "ah....ha HA, oh Rahsaan, you silly!"
It's a great blues, though, buzzed and sung through flute.
Crowd's obviously not embarrassed or put out at all...everybody
goes home happy. Easily a top 5 highlight in the considerable
Black Inventions: Root Strata (1971):
Man, this is just such a badass motherfucking album!! I'm
sorry, I just can't help but swear about it -- this record
rules all others. After years of being told that his many
styles and talents were "a trick," Roland went
into the studio to show once and for all that he was the
master and could do it all, and all at the same time, to
boot. What he did was play pretty much EVERY instrument,
switching between three horns, flute, nose flute, "Black
Mystery Pipes" (aka a length of garden hose, aka his
first instrument -- as he says in his bio, "When I
was a kid, I didn't ask my mom for a trumpet, or a sax -
I just went right in and started wailing on the garden hose!"),
thunder-sheets, sock cymbal, gongs, etc. Joe Texidor accompanies
him on washboard and other things, there's a little conga
on one track, and another track features Sonelius Smith
on lovely, delicate piano. Other than all that, though,
it's all Roland, a virtual one-man band with a harmonium
between his knees, multiple horns in his mouth, and a flute
up his nose. Granted, maybe not the best way to convince
people that he wasn't "a gimmick," and the critics
panned the hell out of it, but it surely stands the test
of time now! All manner of small, intimate songs, beautiful
harmonies, and personal gestures, a classic "one-man-against-the-world"
document. I love this record to death, especially the song
"Island Cry," which has a chord progression partway
through it that just KILLS me...it totally veers left when
you expect it to go right, and it jazzes me every time.
Then, inexplicably, despite being derived from Creole roots
music, it launches into "Havah Nagila" for a few
bars before switching back again. All originals, save for
Ellington's "Day Dream," and a suite of pieces
in the style of John Coltrane (you start to see who his
big heroes were pretty quick!). Another top-five-er...Roland
was really in his classic period here.
(1971): Another turning point here, a crazy patchwork
masterpiece. Kirk jettisons concept, epic scope, and overt
virtuosity in favor of a pure, accessible distillation of
all great black musics, including jazz, R&B, soul, funk,
disco, gospel…you can even hear a bit of what sounds
like some knuckle-down version of Nigerian "Highlife,"
with vocalist Princess Patience Burton singing in a tongue
that is unfamiliar to me…something from the Motherland,
I'd wager. Starting with a spectral take on "Ain't
No Sunshine" by Bill Withers, Kirk's flute buzzing
and wailing ominously over a ghostly, echo-y plod, the band
goes from first gear to fifth in one jump, BLAZING on a
medley of "What's Going On?" and "Mercy Mercy
Me (The Ecology)." Damn! Covers dominate this record,
each one a black music touchstone: "My Girl,"
"Take Me Girl, I'm Ready," "Never Can Say
Goodbye," and even "That Old Rugged Cross,"
made even more rugged by Kirk's hysterical, psychedelic
rant at the beginning…look up the text, I’m
sure it's somewhere online. The whole record feels like
a party, and in a slightly saner world, might have been
a worldwide hit, but the more you listen, the more you have
to admit that it's still got a lot of crazy around the fringes.
It's like going to a REALLY good house party, everybody's
dancing and the DJ is great and everybody's drunk, but there's
random little outbursts of wildness -- someone throws a
punch on the dance floor, someone kicks the back door off
its hinges, whatever. Plus, all the exhortations to blackness
(or "Blacknuss," as it were) must've freaked out
straight America, but looking at it now, it just seems more
weird and insistent than militant. The title track is played
"only on the black keys on the piano…there's
52 white keys, and only 36 black keys. We got no issue with
the white keys, we just wanna hear a song on only the black
keys." Fair enough. A perfect, end-to-end amazing expansion
of the "minor-key dance party" vibe first heard
on Volunteered Slavery, and an absolute top-5 pick.
Thyself To Deal With A Miracle (1972):
I've only listened to this a few times, and I was doing
other things at the time one of those times. Still, this
record is totally arresting, and by the end, I was ready
to utter some hype like "best record of the '70s!"
Like, by ANYONE. As with Natural Black Inventions,
Roland is getting really touchy (rightly so) about being
called a freak show, a novelty, a gimmick, etc., and so
he goes out to prove them otherwise here. Roland plays all
of side two without taking a breath, a feat made possible
by Roland's ability to circular breathe for hours at time,
supposedly. But, more than that bit of derring-do, the compositions
are exquisite, and THOROUGHLY modern in the most unique
ways. It's shimmering and ethereal, and almost, dare I say,
"spectral," like Dumitrescu or something! Glassy
strings and weird ululations from invented instruments,
wraithlike wails from female vocals, classic Impulse!-styled
groaning bass lines that claw into your head, vocalists
cooing strange poems. It just conjures such a specific place...sort
of a murky pool in the midst of a fog-shrouded forest in
the black of night, which makes me think a bit of Comus
or the Incredible String Band! It's really that heady. Goose-bump
music. And then, as side two gets rolling, the sheer density
of Roland's improvisational genius on his horn(s) just starts
to get overwhelming. I have to hear it a few times more,
but it just seems like no matter how many times he runs
his fingers up and down the scales, his sax manages to do
something completely new and unexpected with each new iteration!
(A few listens later, and it gets the coveted Interstellar
Space award, in that the solos are so detailed and
complex and otherworldly, it almost sounds like a different
record every time I play it!) By the time we're knee-deep
in the incredible, rollicking final suite, you're ready
to run out into the street, whooping and hollering like
you won the lottery. I look forward to listening to this
one again, though as I say, it's definitely the most "avant
garde" thing he's done at this point. (Bonus arrogance
points: the "Miracle" of the title refers to Kirk
himself. He was always giving himself shout-outs. I guess
you have to if nobody else will!)
Moments (1973): 2LP set,
live, and yes, THIS is the Live/Dead, or better
yet, the Europe '72 of the Kirk canon -- totally
indispensable, perfectly capturing the live Kirk experience
in all its varied facets. Kirk does it all here, from engaging
the audience in long talks/rants/poems/jokes to playing
pre-recorded tapes of locomotives into the microphone. Music
includes the occasional use of synth (usually anathema to
Kirk, who "hates electricity," as he often put
it. Actually, he really just hates the way electricity was
added to jazz at the time [ahem, Miles]) on one of his funniest
tracks, the transparently descriptive "Fly Town Nose
Blues," which makes generous use of the nose flute/mouth
flute combo, along with some weird synth sounds from Todd
Barkan. Covers include still MORE Bacharach ("You'll
Never Get To Heaven"), MORE Ellington ("Prelude
to a Kiss"), Rogers & Hammerstein ("If I Loved
You"), and Fats Waller ("Jitterbug Waltz")
as well as a Kirk original in the style of the New Orleans
'20s jazz tradition ("'dem Red Beans and Rice").
Some of the rants kind of bog this down for me, though most
all of what he says is totally on point. One of his best
rants here, one that he added to and revised for years afterwards,
is from the title track, "Bright Moments." It
was a structure Kirk would come back to again and again
for audience banter. "Bright Moments! Bright moments
like eatin' a pork chop in London, knowing that that would
be the last one you'd have for a long time. Bright moments
like sharing an ice cream sundae with your girl, and she
grabs the last bite, and that makes you mad, so you gotta
grab her and get it back!" (The Man Who Cried Fire
also contained one that goes, "Bright Moments! Bright
Moments like making love on a leaky waterbed in a Holiday
Inn…") Generally considered the A-1 pinnacle
of Kirk's career, though I'm not quite THAT into it yet...the
live side of Volunteered Slavery still works better
for me, personally, but it might just be that I have to
grow into this one. It's happened before -- took me three
years of constant trying to "get" Second Edition
too! I'm more than willing to be converted.
Case of the Three-Sided Dream In Audio Color
(1975): Oh MAN! Weirdest Kirk by far, even while
being the most "inside" by far, too! Called "the
first psychedelic jazz album" by some and "the
jazz Sergeant Pepper" by others, and neither of those
descriptions do this album a lick of justice! Having read
the story behind the making of the album, I'd put this instead
against Henry Cow's Unrest and Neu!'s Neu!
2, both of them albums where the flaw of not having
enough new music to cover a whole record is fleshed out
into an unexpected masterpiece! Only this one goes further
by stretching a paucity of material (or, more to the point,
a budget squandered on too many takes of the same songs)
into a DOUBLE ALBUM (albeit a 3-sided one, with an almost-blank
fourth side...more on that in a sec). This is a concept
album about Kirk's dreams, a place where Kirk says he's
gotten all his best ideas. He said he saw himself playing
three horns at one time in a dream, and went down to the
music store to look through "the scraps" the next
day, creating his arsenal out of castoff instruments in
the store's basement (his two other horns that aren't tenor
sax, the Stritch and Manzello, are ancient reed instruments
that were last popularly used in 19th century Spanish marching
bands, modified with rubberbands and masking tape by Kirk
himself!). He claims he saw his name change from his birth
name, "Ronald," to "Roland" in a dream
(others suggest that he was just sick of being referred
to as "Ronnie" by all of his old friends from
Columbus). Then there's the "Rahsaan" thing. And
So, the first
thing you hear on this record is their horrifically-computerized
voice, supposedly that of a "master computer,"
saying "RAHSAAN...ROLAND...KIRK......I WANT YOU...TO...GO
TO SLEEP...AND....DREAM!!!" Then you get all these
tapes of Roland ranting, all spliced together and overlaid
("I been dreaming my whole life...I'm trying to wake
up and make some money off these dreams that other people
been stealing from me!" "I looked in a window,
and I saw a woman making love to a computer...it wasn't
no good, though, couldn't last long..." "You better
watch out, I'll pull the plug on you, and that's that!").
Then he does a beautiful "Bye Bye Blackbird,"
playing Miles' part on trumpet (played with a sax rather
than brass mouthpiece, giving it a weird, grainy tone) and
then Coltrane's part on sax. Then there's taped sounds of
horses galloping (!). Then it bumps up into some STRAIGHT-UP
DISCO FUNK JAZZ!!! Like I say, this is the most inside set
Roland ever did, in some ways. It's not sellout material,
though...I mean, it's shit hot, and Kirk wails the hell
out of these tracks. It's just that the production and the
musicians (who were best known for funk/pop stylings) do
give it a distinct mid-'70s Dave Grusin sheen. Then it goes
into "The Entertainer" (VERY mid-'70s!) done in
the style of the blues. That's even what it's called, in
fact: "The Entertainer (Done in the Style of the Blues)"
two funkifies the Kirk classic "Three for the Festival"
(originally heard all the way back on We Free Kings)
as "Freaks for the Festival." Then a beautiful
song called "Portrait of These Beautiful Ladies."
Then, uh, "The Entertainer" again, but weirder...this
time, it starts out very trad, but keeps going into these
modal/Coltrane minor-key jam-outs, fast and furious, like
the cover of "I Say A Little Prayer," or like
how "Uncle John's Band" has those long, minor-key
vamps in live versions that eclipse the length of the actual
song. Then it'll snap back to "The Entertainer"
before again venturing off into the heart of darkness.
so on. Side three is "Freaks for the Festival"
again, "Portrait of These Beautiful Ladies" again,
and then back to "Bye Bye Blackbird," then the
sounds of horses running, but with the tape reversed (!!),
and then the same computer voice coming in again saying,
"RAHSAAN... ROLAND.... KIRK.... I WANT YOU.... TO STOP
DREAMING.... AND..... WAKE UP!" And then more ranting
and layering ("I taught myself to stop sleeping when
I was 14 years old!").
there is a grain of truth to this, as most folks who knew
Roland said that he kind of survived on 3-hour catnaps at
weird hours, and that they'd be out with him all night,
come home at 6 in the morning, and then he'd call them again
at 9 a.m. and be like "c'mon, we gotta go record shopping!"
Oh yeah, also, not related to that but fascinating, the
dude brought his record collection EVERYWHERE, even on the
road! He would pack a full suitcase with LPs, and another
with a turntable, so that even in hotel rooms, he'd have
like 40 or 50 albums to play for himself and for folks who
would visit him in his hotel! He invented the iPod, man!).
In between all
this, there's these little one-minute tracks, all of them
titled "Dream." They're these weird collages put
together with producer Joel Dorn. Sounds of machine guns,
breaking glass, records of Billie Holiday singing, foghorns,
Hitler speeches. "Dream sequences," I guess.
then there's the fourth side, which kind of invents the
hidden bonus track. The album is billed as a "3-sided"
album, and the fourth side, although it has grooves, has
a notice on the label that "grooves are pressed on
here so that no inadvertent damage to the record can occur
in case this side is accidentally placed on the turntable.
Of course, if you let the mostly blank side play, you'll
find around minute 12 that an answering machine beep goes
off, and you hear Rahsaan's voice, seemingly on the phone,
giving off this peal of creepy giggling! For, like 30 seconds
or so. Then, silence. About 12 minutes after that, a small
snatch of phone conversation between Rahsaan and some woman
comes on for about two minutes. He sounds very cynical,
and basically says that he thinks there's no hope left for
humanity, and that it's the end of the line. She tries to
cheer him up (using his feel-good catchphrase "Bright
Moments!"), but it's no use. It's straight up the creepiest
thing ever. (Of course, the CD version totally voids the
surprise value by assigning a track number to this material,
citing it on the back cover as "Telephone Conversation
(24:00).") A crazy, crazy masterwork, and not to be
avoided on account of the disco funk.
(1975): THIS one, however, goes too far. I haven't
hit side two yet, because side one was SO fucking dull.
This is damn near "smooth jazz" in places. I mean,
it's REALLY smooth, and not in a good way. Very Dave Grusin
way, or Herbie Mann, or whatever -- gettin' the last laugh
on Herbie Mann by cuttin' him at his own mellow game. Side
two has a bagpipe medley, which sounds promising, but I
don't know. Also, this came out just after Kirk had his
stroke, and is apparently little more than outtakes from
a previous album. I'll have to give it another shot, but
so far, this is the only Kirk album I legitimately DON'T
just checked out side two. "Bagpipe Medley" is
just a two-horn workout with a bit more Scottish flair to
it than usual. There's a studio version of "Bright
Moments" with the really old-style male/female choir
backing it up, kind of like the types of choir that makes
me think of Ray Charles' version of "I Can't Stop Loving
You." Y'know? The really super-soprano females, tight
harmonies, almost pinched. Kirk tackles this style really
well on a forthcoming album, and doesn't do badly by it
here either. "Lyriconon" is noteworthy for hearing
Kirk play the instrument the track is almost named for,
The Lyricon. It's an electronic wind instrument, the first
of its kind! [Check it out here: http://www.jorritdijkstra.com/thelyricon.html]
The track sounds like a lovely stroll in Central Park…on
the moon. Truth be told, Kirk didn't hate electricity so
much as he hated lazy uses of it. Also, truth be told, this
ain't a half-bad album! The disco-funk take on "Night
in Tunisia" has me kind of overjoyed! It's hardly a
top-5-er, or even a top-20-er, but it's very likely no longer
in the unenviable 28th place spot. Then again, if Kirkatron
isn’t number 28, what is?)
Folks' Music (1976): Again,
this is after Kirk had his stroke. Wanna know how badass
this guy was? Has a stroke in '75. Is PARALYZED on the entire
right side of his body for the next two years (before a
second stroke comes along and kills him outright). Instead
of packing it in, or even, you know, RESTING, he uses his
ability to modify instruments to modify his tenor and flute
and such so that he can play them all one-handed! He curves
his flute so it's in the shape of a walking cane, with the
mouthpiece part on the top and curved away from the body,
which he can hold in one hand. Fuckin' RULES. Anyway, this
is another one of his "revere the past" records.
The opener, "Water for Robeson & Williams"
features Kirk on an instrument he'd come to emphasize on
these later albums, the harmonica, here accompanied by tympani
and harp. Thing is, even though Kirk's stroke laid him low
off-strage, and even though it took him 20 painful minutes
to climb onstage, once he had his horns in front of him,
it was as though nothing was amiss, and even if he was only
playing one horn at a time, he still hit all the emotional
peaks on any previous album, and often rambunctiously at
that…check out his groovy Latin take on Parker's "Donna
Lee" if you need proof. I also gotta give a quick nod
of the chapeau to Trudy Pitts' tasty electric piano riffs
-- there's dancing in those fingertips! Not to mention the
liner notes by ol' Fussy Pants himself, Stanley Crouch.
Hardly dancing, but an enjoyable plod.
Return of the 5,000 lb. Man (1976):
Very mellow, very sweet, very funny, and very beautiful.
And not just a bit crazy. Let's go over the tracklist: "Theme
for the Eulipions." Spoken female matronly hipster
recitation intro/outro (the outstanding Betty Neals), massed
choral vocals, like Mingus dirges. "I've seen him at
the airport, but never out here in the street. Calls himself
a spiritual guide...A EU-LIP-I-ON...says this is his duty-free
gift for the traveler." Then, a cover of "Sweet
Georgia Brown." Hm! Definitely takes me back to the
'70s, and I gotta admit, I can't think of the song without
thinking of seeing the Harlem Globetrotters. This version
isn't too different from the version they would come in
to. Side two has a cover of Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie
Hat" with the group singing the lyrics to the song.
What lyrics, you ask? Well, apparently Kirk decided to write
lyrics to this classic homage to Lester Young, 15 some-odd
years after the original was written! He then does the same
thing with "Giant Steps." A choir sings the lyrics!
It's a slow version of "Giant Steps," but the
steps are still giant. This would be an underwhelming first
place to start, but once you're on board the Kirk train,
it's hard not to be totally delighted with this one. Like
many of his great works, it's mainstream and weird in equal
String-Along For Real (1977):
Awww, so depressing, we're at the last one! Kirk passed
away soon after this album was recorded, but damn, you'd
never know he was ailing based on the music!! Kirk sounds
more vital and alive here (maybe a bit slower, but never
sloppy or tired) than at any time in the last three or four
albums! Contains covers of "I Loves You, Porgy"
and "Summertime," the latter performed on harmonica,
accompanying a music box of the same song. A real tearjerker.
Also contains some blues with Kirk's exuberant singing ("Make
Me a Pallet on the Floor"), some funky strut ("Hey
Babebips," "Dorthaan's Walk," a song about
his second wife), and the tumultuous final blues jam, "Watergate
Blues." "Lock 'im up! Get 'im out of here, throw
away the key!" he yells at the end of the song...full
of piss and vinegar to the end. This is still not as free-wheeling
as the earlier tracks, but it's hardly some sad-bastard
finale. It's very controlled, VERY emotional, and just fucking
incredible. Great music for a slightly sad but mellow Monday
night -- at this point, Wendy's coming to grips with the
fact that she's going to be hearing Roland Kirk pretty much
every time I'm cooking or doing the dishes from now until
about Christmas (and beyond!), and seems to be dealing with
it fine. But when I put this one on, she came in and said
"this is really great! Really nice music for a low-key
Monday night." No doubt.
are two readily-available Kirk DVDs on the market, both
recommended. In Europe 1962-67contains a set featuring a seldom-seen incarnation
of Kirk's band, featuring blind Catalonian pianist Tete
Montoliu playing his ass off! Seriously, where's this guy
been my whole life? He has a heavy-chord style like McCoy
Tyner, but with a touch as gentle as the best Bill Evans
tracks. Just endless roiling and twinkling. At one point,
the rest of the band hits Kirk's final cue, which Montoliu
of course can't see and keeps playing through, so Kirk comes
over and pretty much grabs his hands off the piano to stop
him! Blind leading the blind, literally. Two sets, one circa
Domino, the other around the time of The Inflated
Tear (judging by the choice of tunes). Even better
is the recent title in the Jazz Icons series, titled Live
in '63 and '67. Nice informative booklet (redundant
if you've read the Kruth book, but good for novices). '67
in particular has an outstanding group, with Ron Burton
on piano, Alex Riel on drums, and the awesome Niels Henning
Ørsted-Petersen on bass. A VHS tape from a few years
back, The One-Man Twins, came
out on Rhino, and is from the same concert as the CD I,
Eye, Aye: Live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, though
each has material the other lacks, so you'll have to get
both to see/hear the whole thing. More importantly, though,
Youtube is stuffed with quality clips of Kirk in action,
so just type any version of his name in, and check out the
Kruth wrote a book, titled Bright Moments,
about Kirk's life, and, at 400+ pages, it's pretty thorough!
It's got some problems, though. One is Kruth's desire to
"jazz" up his language at inappropriate moments.
You DON'T need to come up with a new variation on "said"
each time someone says something! "blank blank,"
Joel Dorn opined. "Blah blah," Dorthaan Kirk confessed.
"Boo boo," Hilton Ruiz speculated. That's REALLY
irritating! Also, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that
the dozens of interviews Kruth got from various people in
Kirk's orbit were all kind of variations on the same 10
stories -- Kirk could play three horns at once, Ian Anderson
ripped off his flute style (he even sits down with a sheepish
Anderson to confront him on this!), he hated Nixon, he felt
the kids didn't like jazz anymore, etc. All said, though,
if you're 100% obsessed about Kirk like I am, you need to
hunt down a copy of this (it's eight years old and pretty
out of print) for the abundance of jaw-dropping anecdotes!
Watch as Kirk tries to ride a bike, drive a car, and start
a fistfight with Charles Mingus! Get your mouth watering
as friend after friend talks about Kirk's favorite foods
(hint: not a one of them included vegetables, or anything
that wasn't at least twice-fried)! It's all here and then
are a handful of non-canonical and posthumous CD releases,
most of them masterminded by Kirk's longtime producer/collaborator/sympathizer
Joel Dorn. The only one I've heard is The Man
Who Cried Fire, a masterful early '90s collection
of unreleased tracks and ephemera aimed at showing some
less-seen sides of Kirk, including a recording with him
and a 1920s-style New Orleans jazz band, some great triple-horn
workouts, and a rare appearance by Kirk on clarinet. Also
contains a thoroughly deranged take on "You Did It,
You Did It," and a drop-dead hilarious cutting battle
on Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," where the vocalist concedes
defeat ("It's a wise man who knows to quit when he's
behind!") after Rahsaan grabs the mic and turns it
into a brass instrument, sending a volley of room-shaking
bass thunder through the club! A fun document.
that's it! Hope you see something you like here.
THOMAS THE TANK
ENGINE CAN GO GET FUCKED!
RETTMAN ON CARLIN
is a zero sum game’ – George Carlin ‘Back
in Town’ (1996)
stared at many blank computer screens in the past six months
— both at home and at work — thinking I had
something to write about the passing of George Carlin. Not
like I think it’s of grave importance that anyone
reads what I think of his passing. If anyone would want
to read anything that I write (which I find highly doubtful)
they’d more than likely wanna read what I think of
the Vivian Girls or Teeth Mountain or whoever else is getting
their ass licked by Dusted this week. For the record, I
think the Vivian Girls suck, Teeth Mountain sucks and I
think George Carlin dying really fucking sucks.
no present. There’s only the immediate future and
the recent past’ – George Carlin
My first childhood
memories of Carlin are vague. Fuzzy recollections of those
records he released on Little David being in my cousin’s
collection and maybe witnessing an appearance or two on
Mike Douglas or something, but that was pretty much it.
Somewhere down the line, our family got cable and it was
a revelation. This thin black rope provided me with way
more swear words and/or sexual language than my older brothers
and sisters could ever provide and I was the king of fifth
grade lunchtime for it. One weekend night, a horseshoe of
my sisters and their friends sat in front of the television
in the living room and said something along the lines that
they were about to watch something I shouldn’t see.
I found that intriguing so I lingered around until they
gave up trying to get me to go back upstairs. They were
about to watch a Carlin special on HBO. To be precise, they
were about to watch ‘Carlin at Carnegie’.
next hour or so was a very subtle mindblow that I remember
quite clearly. The first joke Carlin delivered was ‘You
ever notice the women who are against abortion are women
you wouldn’t wanna fuck anyway?’ That first
line created a cacophony of laughter around our living room
and even though I only ‘half got’ what he said,
I could see his words caused a strange reaction among the
people in the room. For the next hour or so, I observed
a spark of absurd understanding fire around our house. Even
my Dad came in and started howling. It amazed me that all
it took was a certain way of saying something to make people
drop their guards. Things that I read in my everyday life
as taboo was given time not only to be aired, but laughed
at in the same time. The way he was making people laugh
and think and ponder all at the same time left a profound
impact on me. The combination of witnessing this special
and listening to the Punk Rock records my brother was bringing
home was the equivalent of some no-goodnik dropping their
first dose of acid. All I needed was the room to revolve
around by itself while ‘Sunshine of Your Love’
emitted somewhere mysteriously in the background. Catholic
school was seen in a way different light that next Monday,
I assure you.
are no facts, only interpretations’ – Friedrich
the rest of my young life, I watched any and all HBO specials
the man did with the reverence I should of given to school
work and teachers. (My mother's words, not mine.) Carlin
shown a light on so many institutions I thought smelled
foul at a young age. Somehow a friend and I convinced his
parents to take us to see him at the Trenton War Memorial
(a venue he played numerous times up until his death). We
were up in nose bleeder seats while he told jokes about
making out, the Catholic Church and read out fake news reports
on phony sporting events like ‘Roller Fucking’.
I thought it was awesome. My pal’s parents bought
me a Carlin shirt that said ‘It Only Hurts When I
Think’ on the back. I wore it all the way up until
my senior year in High School.
don’t have pet peeves. I have severe psychotic fuckin’
hatreds. It makes the world a lot easier to sort out’
– George Carlin ‘You Are
All Diseased’ (1999)
went on, his observations and criticisms streamed broadly
to take in anyone and everyone. As the practices of greed
and pettiness began to spiral down to all classes of our
country, Carlin was right there to tell everyone they were
fucked. His act seemed way more bitter and even more reckless
as the nineties moved on. The fact he could keep up the
ratio of fart jokes to political jokes in every set just
proved he got better with age. In my humble opinion, his
crowning achievement was 1999’s ‘You Are All
Diseased’. After opening up the special by delivering
a hearty ‘Fuck You’ to the audience (‘Just
wanna make ya feel at home’ he says after doing so)
he unleashes an hour long tirade that is both eloquent and
got older, it seemed he got even more juvenile and free
wheeling with his use of off-color comments and swears —
like he was getting off on it more now than he did then.
Watching him now since he’s passed, I think he figured
he might not have too much time left and wanted to get in
as many references to gang bangs, dildos and crack before
he left the earth for good.
is a process. Too slow to save my soul’ – Darby
said that, it still sorta pains me to watch any footage
of him now that he’s passed. I know this is going
to sound corny as all fuck, but watching and listening to
him now just makes me wonder who’s gonna tell the
truth now that he’s gone. Who's gonna create that
elation of observing rage, intellect and humor interlock
so effortlessly? I really don’t know. All I know is
the dude sent my mind ablaze in the possibilities of doing
things on your time and your own way. Sure, it’s not
like I make a lot of money or something, but I know who
I am and what I will and won’t do. Some of that I
owe to my parents, but most of it I owe to Carlin.
six months ago, my girlfriend and I picked up a stray kitten
on the street and named him (you guessed it) Carlin. In
the past few months, he’s made me laugh and think
just as much as the real Carlin and he probably gets into
as much trouble as George did as a kid. Here’s to
hoping he keeps up the tradition left so nobly by that old
is a message from the National Pancake Institute –
FUCK WAFFLES!’ – George Carlin
And if I could
come off even more like a douche, I leave you with this
poem that I immediately thought of when I heard about Carlin’s
by DH Lawrence
you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don't make it in ghastly seriousness,
don't do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.
do it because you hate people,
do it just to spit in their eye.
do it for the money,
do it and be damned to the money.
do it for equality,
do it because we've got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.
do it for the working classes.
Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracies on
and kick our heels like jolly escaped asses.
do it, anyhow, for international Labour.
Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of.
Let's abolish labour, let's have done with labouring!
Work can be fun, and men can enjoy it; then it's not labour.
Let's have it so! Let's make a revolution for fun!