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.”
Here Comes the Whistleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s first album with Atlantic, doesn’t pull any punches, either for the label or for the audience – thank God for that. In fact, he trusts his audience so much that he hands them all whistles and instructs them to blow them whenever they want (“when the spirit hits you, it’s just like making love or something like, when you feel it, let it go”) on the title track, and then proceeds to squeal into something that sounds like a kazoo or tea kettle. And you can hear the audience whistling in the background, lost in the fervor of a madman genius backed by the supple rhythm section of Major Holley’s bass and Charles Crosby’s drums, and the Godlike Jaki Byard and Lonnie Smith, alternating on piano. Shit, why is it that I’ve only been to one concert so far where the artist (Mac DeMarco) did more than simply acknowledge the presence of the audience (if that)? Elsewhere, he scats into one of his instruments through the majority of “Yesterdays” and into a bit of “Step Right Up” and what results a high-pitched and nasally friendly alien that starts annoyingly but soon becomes oddly affecting.
And, no, I don’t think the word “Godlike” is undeserved. Jaki Byard – who contributed to two of the best solos on two of the best Charles Mingus albums (The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’s “Group Dancers” and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus’ “II B.S.”) – is one of the greatest pianists ever. In addition to the lighting-quick fingers, he possessed such an array of completely different playing styles, often demonstrating multiple in the same song, such that he could have you in one moment relaxed and then suddenly leaning forward in the next, trying to figure out how exactly he got there. I mean, just listen to what he does on “Roots.” Byard doesn’t need to play multiple instruments at once or create his own like Mr. Kirk; his unique attack of odd chords made him singular and a kindred spirit. And if the fireworks of that song don’t impress you, fine: check out the ballad “I Wished on the Moon” where Byard doesn’t just provide ballast, contrast or color to Kirk’s more lyrical playing – each chord is a galaxy on its own; every star twinkling or fading. (And I think even Rahsaan Roland Kirk knew that Byard’s the best part of the duet – “The emperor!”; we’re all not worthy.) Similarly, Byard’s the best parts of his own contribution, “Aluminum Baby”: the starry (there’s that word again) trilled piano that make the gorgeous intro/outro to the solo in the middle.
Elsewhere, “Making Love After Hours” soon becomes – indicative of the title – a sweaty gospel-ish affair when the handclaps come in, and the fast-paced “Step Right Up” lets both Holley and Crosby shine. In fact, no bad songs on this one, as expected with a band like this.