The Forgotten Colossus: Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Notable Albums, Songs and Online Videos
Here is a handy resource for those interested in exploring the mind-bending music of the Columbus-born jazz great.
Triple Threat (1957)
Kirk’s first album was initially released on the King label in July 1957, with subsequent re-releases on the labels Bethlehem (as Third Dimension) and Affinity (as Early Roots). At first, it received limited distribution and only gained popularity after being reissued a few years prior to the musician’s death. The album features his unique style of playing multiple wind instruments simultaneously and includes two tracks with overdubbed manzello and tenor saxophone. Kirk referred to the album as only the third overdub record in Black classical music, his favored term for jazz.
I Talk With Spirits (1965)
This is Kirk’s only album with him playing just flutes, eschewing the saxophone and other winds he is most commonly associated with. Both accessible and melodic and at the same time experimental and haunting, it features original compositions, such as the playful “Serenade to a Cuckoo” (later covered by Jethro Tull, which Kirk viewed as a parasitic taking of his work), as well as covers such as the 1954 John Lewis standard “Django” and even a 1901 Japanese song, “Ruined Castles.”
Rip, Rig And Panic (1965)
Kirk’s good friend, collaborator and producer Todd Barkan says this was Kirk’s favorite album. Consisting of mostly original compositions and recorded when Kirk was just 30 years old, Rip, Rig And Panic is most commonly available in a subsequent reissue combined with the album Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith. In the liner notes, Kirk explains the title this way: “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. They all say, ‘Well, I didn’t know this kind of thing could happen.’ Actually, I was doing some things like this when I was in Ohio, but I lost work because people didn’t want to hear this kind of thing.” The album also pays homage to jazz pioneers. Lester Young is the inspiration for “No Tonic Pres,” and Sidney Bechet, Don Byas and Fats Waller for “From Bechet, Byas, and Fats.”
The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color (1975)
The renowned producer Hal Willner called it “a jazz Sgt. Pepper’s, complete with interlude montages, sound effects during songs and Kirk ‘phoning in’ voices during the process.” The album has two discs but only three sides; the fourth is blank. It is the last original studio album recorded and released before his stroke, and it features his hallmark range of styles and genres, including two versions of the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” that he makes his own, as well as innovative and unique originals like “Portrait of Those Beautiful Ladies” and “Echoes of Primitive Ohio and Chili Dogs.” All Music’s Thom Jurek wrote: “Excess was always the name of the game for Kirk, but so was the groove, and here on this three-sided double LP, groove is at the heart of everything … This record jams.”
Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real (1977)
A testament to his will, perseverance and strength, this was the last album he recorded in his short 42 years and the only album recorded and released after his stroke. Kirk plays the tenor sax, manzello, stritch, clarinet and flute, on a mixture of jazz standards like Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Summertime” and original compositions like “Dorthaan’s Walk,” about which his wife wrote in the liner notes, “He wrote it for me. He used to say to me, ‘You walk too fast; where’re you rushing to?’ I would reply, ‘It’s a habit.’ There must have been something in my walk that motivated the tune. He would never tell me.”
Listen to Kirk on Spotify
Writer Chris Davey compiled a Spotify playlist, “Rahsaan’s Columbus,” that features most of the songs mentioned in this story.
Kirk started playing “Bright Moments” in 1972, and Barkan says it became a personal anthem that Kirk would listen to often until his death in 1977. It first appeared on the live album of the same name recorded at Barkan’s Keystone Korner, San Francisco, in June 1973. Barkan wrote lyrics to the song, and it was featured in one of Kirk’s last albums, Kirkatron, recorded before his stroke in 1975 and released in 1976. It also is the title of the 2000 biography by jazz musician and scholar John Kruth.
Love’s a dream that I feel you can always make real
When you go where your heart and your soul sing to go.
Every moment will be bright as sunlight when you listen
To that song inside. Let the light in your soul burn the
darkness to day. Let the song in your heart lift your
troubles away. Don’t you see ....that love can be ....
a sharing of bright moments ...bright moments...bright
moments....bright moments... bright moments....bright
moments.... right now!!!!
This song was first recorded by Kirk on the album Gifts and Messages in 1964. It became one of his favorites to perform live. Written by Sidney Bechet, and first recorded by him in 1953, it was an international hit in 1959 as a clarinet solo by Monty Sunshine with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. Kirk was particularly fond of performing the song in Paris, where he would take the opportunity to describe for the audience the contributions Bechet made to Black classical music.
Probably Kirk’s most famous original composition for both its musical originality and its social commentary. The song features his signature style of playing multiple wind instruments at once, while the title is a reference to the idea that people can become enslaved to their own desires and passions. The intense and frenzied energy of the composition conveys a sense of urgency and defiance against societal norms and expectations. First appearing on the 1969 album of the same name, a feverish live version also appears on the posthumously released album I, Eye, Aye: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1972. (A remarkable video of this performance can be seen below.)
“Fly Town Nose Blues”
This song on the album Bright Moments pays homage to the Columbus neighborhood where Kirk grew up and captures his quintessential improvisational playfulness in his live performances. It includes his style of speaking with the audience, scatting and talking into the flute mid-note. The funky back beat adds to the uniqueness of this extended jam.
This soulful ballad is one of Kirk’s most popular and critically acclaimed recordings, a testament to his virtuosic talent and multi-instrumentalism. With his command of the flute, saxophone and clarinet, Kirk infuses his unique brand of soulful jazz upon a familiar tune. Originally composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “Alfie” likely gained popularity among listeners due to its recognizable melody. However, it’s Kirk’s emotive performance and technical proficiency that have earned the track its place as one of his most celebrated works.
This is an experimental short film with American composer and music theorist John Cage that features a montage of city and zoo scenes, along with Cage’s composition and Kirk’s jazz improvisation, including multiple live cuts. Cage discusses sound and music in relation to people and society, while Kirk’s music plays in the background, including “Here Comes the Whistleman’’ and other compositions.
The Ed Sullivan Show (Jan. 24, 1971)
In 1970, Kirk organized the Jazz and People’s Movement to call attention to the exclusion of Black artists by much of mainstream television. To protest, they disrupted popular live TV broadcasts, including the Merv Griffin, Tonight and Dick Cavett shows. It worked. Ed Sullivan invited Kirk on. Here he is on the Ed Sullivan Show with Charles Mingus on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, Archie Shepp on the tenor sax, and others playing Kirk’s composition “Inflated Tear” & Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song.” He opens by saying, “True Black music will be heard tonight.”
Montreux Jazz Fest (June 24, 1972)
This is Kirk pushing the outer limits, performing, “Volunteered Slavery” like it may be his last chance to speak his piece. Kirk carries a sustained note on the tenor sax for several minutes and wades out into the audience to their obvious euphoria. It ends with him smashing a chair on stage while blowing a whistle. It’s one of the rare videos that shows Kirk without his sunglasses, giving the viewer an intimate look at the man, laboring with his instrument, giving birth to the song.
Montreux Jazz Fest (July 18, 1975)
Just three months before the stroke that would change his life, Kirk appeared for the last time at the venerable and storied Montreux Jazz Festival on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Kirk introduces the band including himself: “One of the true miracles of the tenor saxophone, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.”
Westfalenhalle, Dortmund, Germany (Oct. 30, 1976)
This video shows Kirk performing “Theme for the Eulipions” with Gil Evans and his orchestra, recorded just under a year after his stroke suffered on Nov. 25, 1975. The word “Eulipion” refers to “Agents of Change,” such as poets, painters, musicians, writers, and artists who changed the world.
Hey, listen, listen to his tune,
He calls it the duty-free gift for the traveler.
If there were no song,
You would have this song,
To give warmth at night,
And to keep you strong.
This story is part of a feature on Rahsaan Roland Kirk from the May 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.