When I first heard the song “Seasons” over the radio in Berkeley some 20 years ago, I pulled to the side of the road, parked my car, and sat there until the KALX DJ back announced it. It’s one of those pieces of music.
Record stores being more numerous than gas stations in the East Bay of that faraway era, it was no time before I found “Seasons” on a budget four-CD set of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s late 60s and early 70s Atlantic LPs that’s been a constant companion ever since—though I’d probably recommend The Inflated Tear first to a neophyte, unless it was the kind of neophyte who wanted to have the top of her head shorn off by the bracing music Kirk recorded as a one-man band, in which case I’d suggest Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata.
It was significant that I first encountered Kirk’s music on the radio, before I’d seen his picture; I didn’t yet know what everyone knows about him, namely that he was famous for playing multiple horns simultaneously. I just liked the tune.
Insane live footage is one reason to see the new documentary about Kirk, The Case of the Three-Sided Dream (named after one of his albums), and its insight into how myths and reputations are made is another. Kirk’s superhuman technical abilities—not just his gift for playing independent melodies simultaneously on different instruments, but his mastery of damn near every wind instrument and of the technique of circular breathing, too—actually counted against him, making his music seem like gimmickry, unserious and undignified show-off stuff. When people called him a “showman,” it was a euphemism for “freak” or “clown.” Really, what first-rate genius would play an instrument called the nose flute?
Well, just as, in William Blake’s account, God used his feet to make the tiger, Rahsaan Roland Kirk used his nose to make music, and he was fucking good at it, too. At one point in The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, when Kirk is making the case for the nostrils’ legitimacy as apertures of musical expression and chemical nourishment, I thought back to this rip-snorting performance at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival, where Kirk sniffed a thing or two during his set.
More after the jump…