The genius of Rhasan Roland Kirk

This year has for me been the year of the saxophone – from rediscovering the music of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and going to see Pharaoh Sanders at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in July and Too Many Zooz at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March, to getting to know Austrian saxophonist Guido Spannocchi, who regularly plays at the Bloomsbury Hotel basement bar just off New Oxford Street. But the crowning glory of the year for me has been finding out about the unique, multi-instrumental  talent of Rhasan Roland Kirk. And I’ve had to ask myself: how has it taken me so long to begin listening to this giant of 20th century music?

I should have arrived at this stage earlier. I came to Rhasan Roland Kirk via Jimi Hendrix. I knew that Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Kirk’s – it is a well-documented fact that Hendrix had the Kirk album Rip, Rag and Panic in his luggage when he arrived in London from America in 1966. But for some reason I had never checked out his music. I wondered after I had listened to him if this was because Kirk, in a genre of individualists, was such an arch-individualist that he didn’t logically fall into any of the standard family trees of jazz – he was way out there doing his own thing.

The first track of his that I listened to was this live version of Pedal Up, featuring another of my jazz heroes McCoy Tyner on piano. It simply blew me away. This track introduced me to three key elements of Kirk’s metier – being able to play multiple instruments simultaneously; his remarkable skill at circular breathing – often while playing multiple instruments; and a unique artistic sensibility that sees him take risks that very few musicians would, and which reminds me of the famous Miles Davis quote: ‘Do not fear mistakes. There are none.’ As a writer I am constantly reminded that I should think about my audience. Although this may be true for some types of copywriting, I’ve come to believe that this shouldn’t be the case at all for any true artistic endeavour. Amazing creators should achieve the result that they are happy with. Artists should be allowed to fail on their own terms. Kirk at the end of this piece treads a thin line – is it divine inspiration or epic self-indulgence? – as the rest of the band stops playing and he continues a cappella that culminates in an incredibly long drone-like sound that he maintains with circular breathing and that most resembles Scottish bagpipes. It is utterly unlike any other jazz performance I have ever heard and I think it is amazing – strange, beautiful and beguiling.


I hadn’t mentioned the fact that Kirk was blind because I don’t think that it really matters when you listen to his music. However, one of his most extraordinary pieces is called The Inflated Tear which I believe is an account of his becoming blind. It features him playing three saxophones simultaneously and the sound he gets from them is incredible. The tune blends drama and dreamy melancholy in a way that communicates through music that a life-changing tragedy has taken place. It sends shivers up my spine.

In terms of pure virtuosity – and in my opinion you’d be hard-pressed to find a more virtuouso musician than Kirk – the track Three for the Festival offers a pretty thorough demonstration of Kirk’s extraordinary talent. After a fantastic baritone sax intro from Kenny Rogers, Kirk plays the main motif using three saxophones  simultaneously, before breaking out his flute. The whole tune is really grooving at this stage but then the band falls away and Kirk starts playing his flute and a recorder simultaneously in a style that is totally different to the tune so far. It is slow and melodic and feels classical in style, with just finger cymbals as accompaniment. He then produces a searing flute solo before blowing his whistle to bring the rest of the band back in and finally returning to the original three-sax motif. He was clearly a consummate live performer and as well as the amazing sounds he was able to produce there is a great deal of visual theatre in watching him as well – for one thing he always has at least three instruments having off him at any one time – usually more.  These sometimes included whistles, a nose flute – and even a tape recorder.

In this final clip that I wanted to share in this blog, Kirk uses a tape recorder as a backdrop to a small, funny speech about his philosophy on life, which can be boiled down to the name of the track he goes on to play: Bright Moments. He says: ‘Bright moments is like jumping up and down with the one you love.’ It’s those moments that Rhasan Roland Kirk lived for and the theme of his joyous music is the search for those moments and the illumination of life with art. There is a lot of love in everything that he does and – perhaps more than any other musician I have ever listened to – I’ve felt that he poured all his passion into his music: he lived and died on the stage. This performance in 1975 was one of his last before he suffered a stroke that same year. It meant that he was paralysed down one side of his body but remarkably he continued to perform, playing saxophones one-handed until suffering a second stroke in 1977 from which he did not recover.

So here’s to Rhasan Roland Kirk and the many brilliant, bright moments he has given to me and others – and if you are ever in doubt of what miracles human beings are capable of, check out Kirk’s performances – I hope they brighten up your day.