Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Slightly Latin

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The problem, I assume, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s music, and more specifically, why a lot of modern day jazz listeners haven’t gotten around to him, is that he hasn’t released a magnum opus by way of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Kind of Blue/Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme or The Shape of Jazz to Come or Saxophone Colossus. Instead, Kirk steamrolled his way from inception to his untimely death in the late 70s with very few mis-steps; it’s easier to hear one album than it is to hear, say, ten. (Of course, Jaki Byard – who played with Kirk, has released a magnum opus of his own in The Jaki Byard Experience that still toils in relative despite decades, so maybe it has nothing to do with the number of great albums one releases?)

For the uninitiated, Rahsaan Roland Kirk has a style that’s as distinct as any of the aforementioned Mingus or Davis or Coltrane or Coleman or Rollins; this was a man who would take to the stage with several instruments daggling around his neck, who would sing in the general direction of his flute to produce two different sounds simultaneously, who would release a triple LP for the sake of releasing a triple LP (outdoing Kamasi Washington by four decades and half the time). The flip-side is that critics often wrote his music off as gimmicks or praised it when it was gimmick-free. Quoting Giddins for the billionth time, “To say such an artist that he had no ear for the gimmick is like saying that Art Tatum never played florid runs and John Coltrane never squealed. What counts is what they did with the gimmicks, the runs, the squeals.”

Slightly Latin, released after one of his greatest albums (Rip, Rig and Panic), was probably derided with the gimmick criticism (but this time coupled with commercialism; what is Blacknuss) – and it’s not hard to see why. The opening track, a 2-minute cover of Dionne Warwick’s best song, begins with a riotous theme before Kirk starts yelling “WALK IT!” Anyone familiar with the source material, or who came here looking for Latin-inspired jazz, is probably itching to hit the skip button. (The best part: when “Walk On By”’s immortal melody finally appears, Kirk’s still yelling, this time aroused into “OH YES!”’s and “MM-HMM!”’s when everything collapses into the climax; maybe enjoying himself too much.) Speaking of, I better make this public service announcement now: this record has nothing to do with Latin jazz! Well, aside from “Juarez,” which does have its percussion bounce and peppy theme indebted to the South.

Couple the false start with the loud vocals throughout “Raouf” and “Nothing But the Truth,” or how “Shaky Money” has Kirk punishing his saxophones into sounding like bagpipes, or how “Safari” incorporates what sounds like the bandmembers going “woo” in the background, or the existence of the Beatles cover of A Hard Day’s Night’s “And I Love Her”, or what sounds like a baby wailing during one of the many sections of “Ebrauqs” and you can see where the gimmick criticism comes from. (Beatles covers are almost inherently gimmicky.) But again: it’s not the mere fact that Kirk speaks in gimmicks, but what he does with them, and also, what other languages he speaks.

Kirk harmonizes with the female vocals throughout “Raouf” to create one of the album’s catchiest themes, and his solos on that song are Coltrane-inspired: blistery; worthy of your attention. Elsewhere, “Safari” is one of the album’s best songs in its journey from jungle to outer space; the cacophony of sound is only bolstered by the bandmembers vocally tripping out. And the Beatles cover is short and sweet if ultimately inconsequential, driven by congas and providing some respite before “Ebrauqs.” Elsewhere, “It’s All in the Game” begins with Kirk finally settling down into a calm, and yearning melody over what sounds like a music box; the twinkling sounds eventually drop out and Kirk smoothly transitions into the full band: Edward Mathias plays a delightful bass here, and Horace Parlan provides a prickly solo on piano. Truthfully, of the album’s nine cuts, only “Shaky Money”’s skippable.

This record turned 50 this year; no one cared.

The funniest part? One of his minor albums. (I’d sooner point people to his previous two, or The Inflated Tear, or the ambitious Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle, or even The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color, despite its pretentions; but hey, y’all like Olivia Tremor Control records and The Epic so much, right?)

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