To put it mildly, Rahsaan Roland Kirk laid claim to many attributes. Blind since he was an infant, he could greet people when they walked in the room, before they said anything to him. He could play two or three saxophones at once, employing circular breathing so the inspiration didn’t have to stop to take a breath. With musical knowledge that he seemed to absorb without limit, his performance never became a gimmick.
Saxophonist James Carter recalls a live Charles Mingus album that put Kirk on his radar. Kirk was one of five saxophonists in a jam session, which included George Adams, Mingus’ then-current tenor man. “George Adams thought he was going to mop the floor with Rahsaan,” Carter says. “George was playing cool. He did his upper register thing and went all up and down on the axe. Here comes Rahsaan right behind him. He starts out with just a simple, swinging solo. On that second chorus he just cuts loose with the upper-end polyphonics, and held onto it for a chorus and a half. Later on, he started playing in the style of Ben Webster and Lester Young, came back to his own and he quoted ‘A Love Supreme.’ I mean it was a total history of the saxophone in one solo. Totally shut George Adams down.”
Carter himself is unique in the saxophone canon as well. One of the few that regularly plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, his style straddles tradition and avant garde. His style draws as much from free squonkers as gutbucket blues players, with an equally musical knowledge added to it. If his vast catalog of albums as a leader and sideman didn’t offer enough evidence, he also took part in a jazz tribute to the illustrious indie-rock band Pavement. When Carter returns to Pittsburgh this week, his performance will pay tribute to Kirk, with a band that includes trombonist Dick Griffin, who worked extensively with the multi-instrumentalist in the ’60s and ’70s.
When asked about any impact Kirk might have had on his playing, Carter takes a long pause. “When you think about people that were paradigm players in the history of this music, you have individuals such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum. Not only individuals that influenced people on the instrument they were playing. They influenced everybody across the board. Rahsaan is the chrysalis of all of that. He perfected it and he was still looking for other things to do as well.”