Volunteer Slavery is not traditionally my favorite album by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Although recorded in his prime, with the album including both studio tracks and a raucous performance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, there has always been an over-the-edge quality to the music that has, for all Kirk’s astonishing musicianship and passionate playing, lacked a crucial sense of control. The music always seems to be teetering just barely beyond some indefinable, unmarked line.
Known primarily as a tenor saxophonist, Roland Kirk (as he was known in the earlier portion of his career), also often plays flute, as well as a multitude of toy-like instruments peppered through his songs, such as the stritch and the monzello. He also frequently plays two saxophones at once (with one reed branching out to the two horns) and has the rare gift for what’s known as circular breathing, in which one can breathe in and out while simultaneously continuing to play the instrument (the soloing possibilities are endless). On one of Volunteered Slavery’s live tracks, he even plays nose flute.
But lately, since I’ve been listening to the album often, it is the very chaos of Volunteered Slavery that I've been drawn to. Kirk and his band may sound raucous, but it comes with a contagious exhuberance. Throughout his career, Kirk has been described as a player with the talent of a virtuoso but the reckless abandon in his playing of a street musician. Although there’s an element of almost Barnum-like showmanship to Roland Kirk’s persona—the guy wears a top hat, after all—he has the chops, the knowledge and the sheer soulfulness to back it up.
(Apropos of nothing, Roland Kirk was blind. Oh, and he died of a stroke in 1977.)
Volunteered Slavery crosses another line that I’m less sure about, but ultimately I end up going for it too. Coming in the mid-to-late Sixties, the album is open and liberal about integrating jazz with rock and pop. Roland Kirk covers both Stevie Wonder’s “Mon Cherie Amour” and Burt Bacharach’s “Say A Little Prayer”. The idea of it sounds alarm bells in my mind, for this era of jazz was one teetering on the edge of the fusion era, something that created a lot of bad records. But I like both Wonder and Bacharach (I grew up listening to my mom’s copy of Talking Book), and I think you could argue that Roland Kirk’s covering these songs is no different from John Coltrane covering “My Favorite Things”. Besides, Roland Kirk was always one to incorporate a variety of genres, both in and out of jazz (he moved effortlessly between avant garde, bop and other sub-genres).
Ultimately it’s another Rahsaan Roland Kirk album, The Inflated Tear, that still earns my vote as his most refined and exquisite album. (Thanks be to Neil for introducing me to it back in London in 1995.) It came slightly earlier in his career, and he was yet to become quite so unbridled. As a result, there is a precision to the playing that you don’t necessarily hear on Volunteered Slavery. But the latter record, perhaps of the strong gospel influence that wasn’t so prevalent with its precessor, has this pulsating rhythm that I think is its true secret. I’ve never, ever been one to clap along, but if I ever did, it would be to Volunteered Slavery.