Rahsaan Roland Kirk - tenor sax, stritch, manzello, clarinet.
Marian McPartland - piano
Larry Ridley - bass
Al Harewood - drums
When avant garde pioneer Rahsaan Roland Kirk made his Newport Jazz Festival debut in 1962, he was billed as "Discovery of the Year." For his third Newport appearance, on July 4, 1969, the iconic multi-reed man found himself on an all-rock bill, sandwiched between Blood, Sweat & Tears and Brit guitar hero Jeff Beck. Four years later, Kirk was back at the Newport Festival, but by this time impresario George Wein had moved the whole operation to New York City. For his July 3 performance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, Kirk paid tribute to Duke Ellington as part of a program entitled "A Jazz Salute to the American Song." And for his special occasion he was accompanied by the unlikely lineup of Marian McPartland on piano, Larry Ridley on bass and Al Harewood on drums.
Though blind, Kirk was a visionary player-composer-bandleader who mixed and matched elements from seemingly disparate sources (blues, ragtime, swing, Dixieland, avant garde, R&B) into a unique and distinctive mélange of post-modernist sounds. An eccentric stylist, he was also a consummate entertainer and shamanistic presence on stage, alternately given to clowning and playing two or three instruments simultaneously. But for this Ellington tribute he played it fairly straightforward, performing. Kirk and his crew open with a soothing rendition of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," with the leader on tenor sax and occasionally spilling over with enthusiastic bursts of overblowing that step into the avant garde zone. As the Ellington medley continues, he switches to clarinet for a lush reading of the ballad "I Didn't Know About You," which is expertly underscored by Harewood's sensitive brushwork. Then playing his manzello (a high register soprano-sounding reed instrument) and tenor sax simultaneously, he performs a stunning two-horn solo extrapolation on Duke's "Satin Doll" that showcases his signature circular breathing technique along with his irrepressible spirit.
Kirk then brings out Al Hibbler, featured singer with the Ellington Orchestra through the 1940s, for a soulful, straightforward reading of "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me." The two had collaborated successfully the previous year on the Warner Bros. recording, A Meeting of the Times, which included several Ellington tunes. They reprise their unlikely chemistry at this Philharmonic concert, to the delight of the audience. Kirk begins the tune by playing tenor sax but midway through he takes another show-stopping, two-horn solo on manzello and tenor. And they close out their portion of this Ellington tribute concert with a rousing version of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," which has Hibbler conjuring up some surreal scatting and Kirk digging deep on his tenor sax solo.
Born Roland Kirk in Columbus, Ohio on August 7, 1935, he became blind at the age of two. Originally playing bugle and trumpet before learning clarinet and C-melody saxophone, he began playing tenor sax professionally in R&B bands at the age of 15. While a teenager, he also discovered the manzello and stritch and incorporated those instruments into his burgeoning horn arsenal, along with flute and harmonica. Kirk's debut as a leader was a 1956 R&B record called Triple Threat and by 1960 he began incorporating circular breathing, a technique that enabled him to play without pause for breath, into his arsenal. He recorded his second album as a leader that year, Introducing Roland Kirk on the Chicago-based Argo label. In 1961, Kirk toured with Charles Mingus and the following year appeared on Roy Haynes' Impulse album, Out of the Afternoon. In 1970, he added 'Rahsaan' to his name after hearing it in a dream. Through the early to mid '70s, Kirk led his Vibration Society, recording prolifically for the Atlantic and Warner Bros. labels while also wowing audiences in concert with his unique ability to play two horns simultaneously. He suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1975 but continued to perform one-handed until his death on December 5, 1977. (Bill Milkowski)