Many Of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s albums may well resemble a crazed carnival ride, but inspired artistry is ever-present. As a soloist on sax, clarinet, flute, manzello (a customised soprano sax actually called a saxello), or stritch (an alto sax with a French-horn bell) he could play with explosive outrageousness or with incredible poise and grace. Although he had great humour which often comes through in the music his use of multiple horns was no gimmick, and he justifiably bristled at the suggestion, as it was always employed in the pursuit of daring new possibilities of sound. As a blind man his relationship with sound was supernatural and often his soundscapes were revealed to him in his dreams. He said that as a young man he dreamed of playing three horns at once; he couldn’t visualise teams of musicians in a brass section making the music he heard on his favourite records and therefore didn’t conceive any limitations on whatever mass of sound he as an individual could be capable of creating.
His early albums as simply Roland Kirk (pre-Rahsaan) were hard-bop musings as imagined by a prodigiously gifted multi-instrumentalist that only hinted at the greater potential to come. The introspective all flute LP ‘I Talk With The Spirits’ (1964) was followed by the visionary ‘Rip, Rig & Panic’ (1965) that married influences as diverse as clarinettist Sidney Bechet, musique concrète and the French avant-garde composer Edgar Varese. He had mastered circular breathing allowing him to blow streams of notes endlessly, his soloing was epic and the intensity seemed to increase without relief. Released in 1967, ‘The Inflated Tear’ is considered by many as his masterpiece, it is certainly one of his more accessible releases and a great entry point for the uninitiated.
By the time of ‘Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle’ (featuring evocative cover-art by Stanislaw Zagorsky) he had become the supremely confident, fully developed Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His musical vision was vast and radical, he had a cult following and devoted musicians who were prepared to be swept along with him on his journey. And that’s what this album has perfectly achieved, the expression of a vast, radical journey. Supported by a string-section rolling with subtle menace and a twinkling arpeggiated piano he opens the album with a clarinet exploration that mimics the hightened emotions (the piece is titled ‘Salvation and Reminiscing’) of a mournful gypsy violin filled with heartache. The suite ‘Seasons’ begins with the medieval-like ‘One Mind Winter/Summer’ played with flute and nose-flute simultaneously which leads onto the glistening dream-logic of ‘Ninth Ghost’ with brooding bass and Kirk’s skittering flute sounding like entranced moth spirits in a wooded forest. His so-called Black Mystery Pipes (actually a length of garden hose played as a drone instrument much like a didgeridoo) and a baby E-flat sax are played in tandem on the shamanic ‘Celestial Bliss’ with chanting and hand-drums evoking a tribal fire-dance ceremony which ushers in the closing ‘Saxophone Concerto’, a 21 minute three-part suite which contains the miracle that the album title advised you prepare yourself to deal with, namely a one-take tenor sax torrent that is played nearly entirely using his astounding circular-breathing technique which after a searing hard-bop intro and a frenetic klezmer-style blow out reaches new levels of wildness during the middle section, the galloping ‘One Breath Beyond’, which is then notched up even further during ‘Dance Of The Revolution’ where the entire ensemble take off into the stratosphere with Captain Kirk at the wheel as the miracle enters into and beyond the infinite realms of the unknowable. Everything slowly falls back to earth as the sound of an express steam engine that has been fading in and out over the course of the journey trails off into the darkness.
Truly awesome, this mind-blowing album will further unlock your thinking about what music is and can be.
Check out this review by Stephanie Carta of the 2016 documentary “Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case Of The Three-Sided Dream”.