I was asked recently to write a feature on Albums We Love for KMHD 89.1 FM, the listener-supported jazz station for which I do a weekly show. My show, The New Thing, is a “bridge” show that creates on-ramps, pathways, and springboards for mainstream jazz listeners to the rich tradition of jazz’s more free and avant-garde terrain.
Occasionally I like to remember how and why I like the music that has been such a vital center of my life for the last 30+ years—this was a great opportunity to muse on an LP that was an important permission slip in my adolescence—both for what it taught me as a listener and what it illustrated was possible within and without the tradition of this oh-so beautiful music.
The version of this that ended up reprinted online was unrecognizable from what I wrote (after editors cut, spindled and creased it into submission— reminding me of Billy Collins’ poetry students who instead of losing themselves in the experience, wanted to tie works of writing “to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it/They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”)…seemed a shame to let a nice piece gather dust. So consider this a Christmas card of thanks to a great jazz artist, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
On The Inflated Tear: Many Blessings
45 years ago, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Roland Kirk recorded a small masterpiece for Atlantic, entitled The Inflated Tear. Following in the wake of the very recent deaths of Coltrane, Woody Guthrie, and Che Guevara, The Inflated Tear was indeed a welcome gift, a wunderkammern, simultaneously hopeful, irreverent, jarring, and otherworldly. The Inflated Tear exerted a profound influence on my 16-year-old self, showing me all the ways jazz could be: brimming with childlike joy and abandon; seething, tearing at the seams of jazz’s more polite surface, while remaining rooted to tendrils of melody and swing.
Prodigiously talented and wildly idiosyncratic, qualities that were both a blessing and a curse, it is very hard to write about Kirk’s music without talking about the man.
Blind from the age of two, Kirk was a marvel, playing tenor sax, flute, clarinet and long-forgotten members of the sax family—cast-off step-children of “the bent-metal serpent” (as poet Ted Joans called the saxophone) like the Manzello and the Stritch, which he played simultaneously, fingering two horns while playing a third as a drone. Around his neck, stuffed into pockets, were whistles, nose flute, a section of garden hose, sirens, harmonica, a trumpaphone, a cuckoo clock, flexatone and something called a black puzzle flute. Steeped in bebop, wading knee-deep in blues currents (big city, country-fied and otherwise), with a penchant for the surreal—the sight of a stocky blind man in black wraparound glasses blowing three horns at once was like some kind of Beat epiphany. Easily written off by critics as Barnumesque gaullimaufry, Kirk was one of the 1960s most exciting performers who seemed, as Dr. Billy Taylor said, “to generate music like a dynamo creating electric energy.”
Bursting on the scene when “the New Thing” was shunning melody and shirking off time, Kirk embraced jubilant swing, waltzes you could ice skate to, time-traveling nostalgic ballads and deep blues. He saw no need to reconcile freedom with tradition because in his hands it was all the same continuum—drawing equal influence and inspiration from Sidney Bechet, Mingus, Don Byas and Lester Young, Fats Waller and Monk, Duke Ellington and many of his cadre including Barney Bigard and Harry Carney. Kirk presaged the dictum of the AACM by embracing “Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future” from the get-go of his particular downbeat. If Kirk was guilty of anything it was that he, as Gary Giddins said, “appeared to have too much fun playing at a time when solemnity was big.”
Throughout the 1960s, Kirk reinvigorated jazz as both art and entertainment, weaving together a vivid sense of theater, politics and protest, humor, and an unimpeachable, heavy artistry – but it’s with The Inflated Tear, that he perfected and distilled his singular blend of tradition, freedom, pathos, and sense of play.
Stand-outs: “The Black and Crazy Blues” is an understanded dirge that finds pianist Ron Burton and Kirk playing catch with time and space without ever betraying a hint of corn. A flute feature, “A Laugh for Rory” crackles with innocence, light and feverishly good, tickle-and-pounce drum interplay from Jimmy Hopps. “Many Blessings” has a wonderful herky-jerky Monk-like tune (think of the tenor-piano cat-n-mouse of Monk’s “Shuffle Boil”) that evolves patiently before Kirk unleashes a rapid-fire, cascading tenor solo that overflows with flurries of notes and delicious sharp turns. On Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” Kirk deploys his multi-horn blowing to stunning effect—uncoiling and taking things out into orbit, just enough, before landing back in the pocket. It’s a great illustration of Kirk’s diachronic love affair with the music: a nod to both his forebears and the playful, knotty shape of jazz to come.
The title track though is the prize at the bottom of the box. “The Inflated Tear,” a reference to a childhood incident of over-medication that turned a young Kirk from partially to fully blind, is deeply moving and begs repeated listening. Opening with chiming shards of little instruments, flexatone, bells and Kirkian who-knows-what, silence is cleaved by a breathtakingly beautiful line like something out of the Strayhorn-Ellington canon, replete with Ron Burton’s piano-on-a-turquoise-cloud embellishments. Beauty, sadness, tension, dignity, catharsis and forgiveness are all in attendance – creating an aural snapshot of a life poised, as the poet Kirsten Rian writes, “somewhere between grief and happiness.”
Like some kind of jazz-borne ancient mariner, Kirk used music as a sextant, measuring the angles between jazz’s birth and its path into the future. Roland Kirk, who said that he could “hear the sun” and ventured that “the wind was in Bb,” could seem at times like a saxophone-and-whistle-wielding shaman or like a jazz version of the Potato Face Blind Man, Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories minstrel who sat, “salut[ing] the dawn and the morning with a mixture of reverence and laughter.” Now, as in 1967, that is a gift, one worthy of thanks —and we are forever grateful to Kirk for this small masterpiece.