Aging like wine

Two decades do the music of Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk a world of good

Guilt is less of a factor when reconsidering the Rahsaan Roland Kirk set, but it must be taken into account nonetheless. Born blind in Columbus, Ohio, in 1936, Kirk was a near-prodigy on clarinet and saxophone; by 1951, he was already fronting his own dance band. At 16, reportedly inspired by a dream, he picked up an oddball collection of reject instruments, including a couple of saxophone variants known as a stritch and a manzello, and taught himself to play them simultaneously. His use of trick fingering to achieve primitive three-part harmony was seen as a stunt by doubters, and his fondness for whistles and sirens was widely derided by many of the same folks who years later praised members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for using them. With the help of people such as Charles Mingus, in whose band he played for four months, Kirk finally began to receive serious attention during the early '60s, but like Sun Ra, his brother in wackiness, he was unable to convince everyone that his showmanship didn't detract from his musicianship.

Like the Lateef package, Aces Back to Back compiles four albums previously unavailable on CD: 1969's Left & Right, 1970's Rahsaan Rahsaan, 1973's Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle, and 1976's Other Folks Music. Taken as a whole, they establish Kirk's musical mastery and noteworthy restlessness. On Left, Kirk is at his most overtly normal; the crash-and-bang sound effects on the opener, "Black Mystery Has Been Revealed," seldom pop up elsewhere. Strings dignify bits of Ellingtonia such as "Quintessence" and "I Waited for You," and the almost-20-minute-long "Expansions" recalls Mingus via its bold structure and thematic leaps.

"The Seeker," from Rahsaan Rahsaan, is nearly as protracted an opus--and a hairier one. In it, Kirk and his comrades shift back and forth between traditional arrangements and moments of anarchy; in fact, the song's initial three or four minutes are dominated by seemingly unplanned noises and Kirk's voodoo mumbling. At the outset, the average listener is apt to wonder if Kirk had the slightest idea what he was doing; by the conclusion, no one will care. Prepare Thyself is equally adventurous: "Salvation and Reminiscing," replete with echoes of jazz, gospel, and classical, and "Saxophone Concerto," an elongated indulgence that still manages to bend minds, are among its highlights. And if much of the professional but somewhat workmanlike Other Folks Music seems tame by comparison, it's only because Kirk was at his best when he was at his wildest. The flute-tootling on "Samba Kwa Mwanamke Mweusi" is certainly pretty, but the number doesn't allow Kirk to fully express the extremes of his personality.

Of course, many '70s scribes heaped more praise on Kirk's conventional efforts than they did on his weirder excursions; they seemed to believe that standard arrangements forced him to rely on jazz verities, not freakish antics. Today this viewpoint seems foolishly reductive--but it also proves why reissues such as Aces Back to Back and The Man With the Big Front Yard are necessary. History isn't dead--it evolves and mutates with regularity. And in this case, the change is for the better.

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