Weird-ass blasts

Sep 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was one of jazz’s great mad geniuses, a passionate player who flung his rough edges in your face, a technical virtuoso who liked to play three horns at once and who perfected the art of circular breathing to where he could play for up to two hours without pausing to inhale. Kirk had his introspective moments but they were overwhelmed by his general showboating tendency, a crowd-pleasing aggressiveness and comic irreverence which some say made him his own worst enemy. I can remember John Sinclair reviewing two Kirk releases for Jazz magazine in 1965; he praised one while dismissing the other as a freaky joke record. Around that time, Kirk appeared on a Detroit radio station — probably Ed Love’s old WCHD program — and said, "There’s a guy here in town telling people not to buy my records." And he sounded really, really pissed.

Left Hook, Right Cross is a reissue of two Kirk albums — ’69’s Volunteer Slavery and ’72’s Blacknuss — and while they’re not exactly joke records, they do have more than their share of freakiness. Blacknuss is the lesser of the two. It’s Kirk’s attempt at a pop-oriented album subverted by his essential Kirk-ness — dig the raggedy-ass flute scrabbling across "Ain’t No Sunshine," the scary vocalized tenor sounds on "Make It With You" and the way he can’t quite decide if "My Girl" is a vocal or instrumental feature. But Blacknuss seems a model of decorum next to Slavery, a masterpiece of wretched excess on which Kirk manages to throw in everything he knows, from gospel to avant-garde, from a symphonically conceived version of "I Say a Little Prayer" to a blistering Coltrane homage. It’s a rousing outpouring of emotion, shining undimmed 30 years on, straight from this strange man’s whacked-out heart.