Tragically immersed in a blind man’s world of infinite darkness, Roland Kirk’s universe was forever dominated by sound. Gifted with a powerful personality, immense natural talent and a near-obsession with jazz, he seems to have always been destined to become a musical force. A saxophonist of apparently limitless dexterity, he was also an excellent flutist, pioneering new techniques on the instrument he developed on his own. Guided by his dreams to develop the facility to play three different reed instruments simultaneously, thereby becoming a one-man brass section able to perform harmony and counterpoint, and determined to master a circular-breathing capability which empowered him to blow uninterrupted torrents of sound, Kirk’s abilities entered the realms of the profound. Deeply attuned to the traditions of jazz, his true nature was forward leaning. Both of these tendencies are amply demonstrated on the magisterial Rip, Rig and Panic (1965), whose cryptic title was explained by its creator thus:
“Rip means Rip Van Winkle (or Rest in Peace?); it’s the way people, even musicians, are. They’re asleep. Rig means like rigor mortis. That’s where a lot of people’s minds are. When they hear me doing things they didn’t think I could do they panic in their minds.”
This is a dig at critics who were unable or unwilling to see his three-horn method (and the various whistles, sirens and nose-flutes worn around his neck) as anything other than gimmickry. Outward appearances distracted them from truly observing that at the core of Roland Kirk’s craft was a supreme musicality. His frustrations surface on the bubbling bossa-nova ‘Why Don’t They Know?’ from Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith when he insists: “Now you know they should know by now, don’t you think they should know by now? After fifteen years, after twenty-five years, they should know by now.” Then giving voice, in mocking falsetto, to his critics: “I’m sorry baby, I’ll never know ‘cos I just don’t understand.”
Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith is sandwiched between his two most popular recordings Rip, Rig and Panic and The Inflated Tear (1968) in his discography and is often overlooked as a result, and although not as audacious as those two albums it should not suffer by comparison. Kirk’s playing is, as usual, of the highest standard and full of stylistic pirouettes whether playing one (or all) of his reed instruments or his flute, and the tunes are as strong and varied as you would expect on a Roland Kirk release, supported here by a young Lonnie Liston Smith on piano, Sun Ra mainstay Ronnie Boykins on bass and session drummer Grady Tate. Opening with the gut-bucket blues of ‘Blue Rol’ which features a prime example of circular-breathing on his solo, followed by an exquisite version of ‘Alfie’ wherein time obediently stands still, we are lead through a shape-shifting programme that should have served to disprove his critics, so authoritative and self-assured is his performance throughout. The one exception is the 60’s a-go-go ‘Fall Out’ which is out of place here. The title track is as heartfelt and tender a lament as Kirk would ever commit to tape, with a wistful piano solo by Lonnie Liston Smith that is both earnest and unguarded, while ‘Stompin’Grounds’ has a barnstorming multi-horn solo by Kirk that demonstrates more of his fearless inventiveness, a quality that properly defines his entire recording and performing career.