When we say someone plays a lot of instruments it usually doesn’t mean playing them at the same time. Unless it’s Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977).
But this wasn’t a street performer gimmick. Rahsaan was a legend, a prodigiously talented jazzman, an inspired and soulful performer, a one man reed section, and a tireless innovator, adapting not only music but also numerous musical instruments (many of them rare) to his needs. He was also a poet, a dreamer, an impromptu stage comic and political ranter.
Rahsaan often played with the greatest of the greats. For a sampler, here is Rahsaan with McCoy Tyner (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass), Lenny White (drums), and Quincy Jones (emcee) at a Downbeat poll awards concert in 1975.
Our faithful Wikipedia offers a commendable entry that follows Rahsaan’s life and assesses his music and legacy. Theodore Ronald Kirk lost his sight at an early age because of bad medical treatment. He was prompted in a dream to switch the “n” and “l” in Ronald, and later, in another dream, was induced to drop the Theodore, and adopt “Rahsaan” instead.
More from Wikipedia:
Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were tenor saxophone supplemented by other saxes, like two obscure saxophones: the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument’s characteristic upturned bell) and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell). A number of his instruments were exotic or homemade. Kirk modified instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.
He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, and at times he would play a number of these horns at once, harmonizing with himself, or sustain a note for lengthy durations by using circular breathing. He used the multiple horns to play true chords, essentially functioning as a one-man saxophone section. Kirk insisted that he was only trying to emulate the sounds he heard in his head. Even while playing two or three saxophones at once, the music was intricate, powerful jazz with a strong feel for the blues.
Yes, folks, Rahsaan played stritch, manzello, and saxello.
Among his other achievements, Rahsaan was one of the great jazz flautists. You may know that without knowing you know; his is the brief flute solo in “Soul Bossa Nova,” the Quincy Jones’ arrangement that became the Austin Powers theme. Rashaan plays from 1:38, in his characteristic breathless style:
“I was totally blind when I came on here.”
You can hear it at 1:00 in this clip.
The soul postlude “Three for the Festival” is also one of my favorite vamps and has some fantastic flute work.
If you’re still with me, let’s round this up with the title cut from Bright Moments, which includes some classic (and beautiful) poetic banter from Rahsaan: