Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a true jazz character – A blind multi-instrumentalist, with the unique ability of circular-breathing that allowed him to play endless phrases without coming up for breath. Politically outspoken with a penchant for theatrical eccentricity, Rahsaan would habitually engage the audience from the stage, or directly within the viewing area itself. He would dexterilly play one, two or three horns simultaneously, incorporating both melody and harmony. Hendrix, Duane Allman and Frank Zappa considered themselves fans, and Derek Trucks more recently has even performed and recorded this very composition.
A friend first introduced me to Rahsaan in the late nineties, lending me a VHS of Kirk’s Vibration Society 1972 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. For as funky and soulful as the music was, it was was the viscerally visual aspect that completely captivated me. I borrowed the video, harkened anybody who visited my apartment to watch it (whether they seemed remotely interested or not), and was hard pressed to return it. The only opportunity I have to watch it these days is on YouTube, via the contribution of likeminded fans (It has not been officially released in any other format since 1996). The concert as a whole is available on YouTube, but Volunteered Slavery is surely the highlight. (These uploads seems to come-and-go, as YouTube yanks them, so catch it soon).
It’s a simple song, and Rahsaan and bassist Henry Pearson open by presenting the melody in its purest form. But just about the one-minute mark the entire band takes off. Pianist Ron Burton lays down a mother of funky piano vamps, and Kirk accompanies his tenor himself, playing harmony and alternate melody on the soprano sax at the same time. There’s some Hey Jude introduced as part of the sax solo, and then a stroll through the audience, with Burton picking up the slack when he realizes that Kirk has wandered away from the microphone (Kirk continues to play the entire time, but the mic is simply not picking him up at this point). Once Kirk does return to stage, it’s just a jaw-dropping onslaught of notes and riffs (remember the circular breathing). And as the tune ends in a cacophony of sound, Rahsaan pulls the ultimate Pete Townsend / Keith Moon imitation.
Live performances are as much a visual experience as aural – We all know that, otherwise nobody would scamper to the front of the stage for glance of their fave artists. And while this particular musical performance can absolutely stand on its own merits, a lot would be lost without without the visual aspect. The physical interaction with percussionist Joe “Habao” Texidor would be missed. The energy and exuberance form the (mostly white) audience would be missed. For an individual who was robbed of his own site, Rahsaan Roland Kirk certainly made sure that the audience’s eyes were as equally entertained as their ears.