Roland Kirk was born in 1935. As an infant, he was blinded, possibly by negligent medical care. He attended the Ohio State School for the blind, where he played in the school band. At the age of sixteen, he led a dance band that performed around the Midwest. It was also at age sixteen that he got the idea to play more than one instrument at once, an innovation he claimed to have received in a dream. He acquired a battery of instruments, including such oddities as the stritch and manzello (obsolete cousins of the saxophone), and set about mastering them individually and in combination.
Kirk recorded as early as 1956, but got little attention until 1960, when critics began to accuse him of gimmickry. Kirk maintained that his unorthodox techniques were born of musical expression rather than cheap showmanship, and his following began to increase.
In 1970, he added “Rahsaan” to his name, having been prompted to do so by another dream.
In 1975, Kirk suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. Kirk continued to perform one-handed. He died in 1977.
Kirk’s album The Inflated Tear is Kirk at his best. Eight of the nine cuts are his own highly original and startlingly varied compositions. Kirk plays tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, clarinet, flute, whistle, English horn, and flexafone. He is joined by Ron Burton on piano, Steve Novosel on bass, Jimmy Hopps on drums, and *** Griffith on trombone. The 1967 date touches almost as many emotions as Kirk plays instruments.
Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” a simple-but-well-loved tune by a revered elder statesman of jazz, seems at first an unsurprising choice for anyone’s album—though interesting in this case as the only selection not composed by Kirk himself. But Kirk’s flair for the extraordinary shapes this performance into a unique musical happening.
Ellington’s best-known arrangement features a pianissimo melody by the reed section, with a clarinet playing the lead part. Kirk’s choice of clarinet and tenor saxophone for his version seems apt, though the complications of playing two instruments simultaneously suggest that this decision could not have been one made without very careful consideration. Kirk manages to include the clarinet melody, altered in places to fit a bluesy shuffle feel, and harmony in the tenor, not to mention covering the vocal part (also in the tenor).
Kirk changes the key from B-flat major to F major (G major for the clarinet and tenor saxophone, both transposing instruments in B-flat). This accommodates the range of notes available using Kirk’s special two-instrument technique. Kirk also shifts the meter from 4/4 to a tripletized 6/4, creating a feel indebted to gospel music as much as to the Ellington band.
The overall effect of Kirk’s rendition is one of respectful but nonimitative tribute. Kirk’s version of “Creole Love Call” is a hard-driving contrast to Ellington’s sleepy Southern portrait. Kirk said, “I did Creole Love Call because words can’t describe what I think of Duke Ellington and his music. The only way I can show how much I dig his music is just to keep on playing.”2
Kirk’s performance of “Creole Love Call” is an example of his multi-instrument style using unaltered instruments and relatively few “tricks.” Both clarinet and tenor saxophone have several notes playable with the left (upper) hand only. Kirk uses his left hand on the tenor’s left-hand keys and operates the clarinet’s left-hand keys with his right. The clarinet’s relatively small-diameter bore makes it possible to reach all the necessary keys “right-handed,” but the tenor’s large bore and keys operated with the palm make such a switch impossible.
Putting the saxophone in the left hand presents another problem, however. The tenor saxophone, played in a seated position, generally rests on the saxophonist’s outer right thigh, with its weight supported by a neckstrap and balanced with the right thumb. Moving the saxophone outside the left thigh brings keywork in contact with the leg, causing interference with fingering. It is possible that Kirk used a special stand or other apparatus to hold the instrument, but the low-tech approach of holding the instrument between the legs is a more likely scenario. If held carefully in this manner, none of the keywork is compromised, the inner left thigh can help to balance the instrument, and the keys and mouthpiece can be reached with relative ease.
Adding the clarinet complicates the situation. The weight of the clarinet is usually supported entirely by the right thumb (and balanced with the embouchure, or mouth muscles, leaving the rest of the fingers able to move freely). In this case, however, the right hand is brought out of its usual position near the bell end of the clarinet and used to operate the left-hand keys. A neckstrap can support the clarinet’s weight, but makes no provision for keeping the correct angle for playing. This suggests again that Kirk is playing in a seated position, allowing the bell of the instrument to be rested on the right knee. This position, though a little precarious, makes it possible to play the instrument one-handed. (In attempt to recreate this technique, it would be wise to use a neckstrap anyway—to prevent dropping an expensive and delicate instrument.)
Playing both instruments at once requires a major revision of the standard, “correct” embouchure. Each instrument is normally played with the mouthpiece centered in the mouth. This allows the mouth muscles to provide a supportive cushion on all sides of the mouthpiece. Even slight changes in pressure in any part of the embouchure affect the player’s control of timbre and pitch.
Playing on two mouthpieces at once creates a number of problems: both must be off-center, using weaker and relatively untrained muscles; the slightly different embouchure requirements of tenor saxophone and clarinet and the different sizes of the mouthpieces require an asymmetrical (read: difficult and temperamental) “double” embouchure; and an opening is created in the center of the mouth. To understand the difficulty created by this last point, try inserting two fingers of each hand into the sides of your mouth, then try to close your lips adequately that no air can escape. It is possible only with great effort—and a great deal of tension, an obstacle to good tone, accurate pitch, and range flexibility.
With these difficulties considered, it is surprising that Kirk’s tone on each instrument changes so little during the “solos,” though, admittedly, Kirk’s tone is unarguably unconventional on each. (Any saxophone or clarinet teacher would act quickly to “correct” that kind of tone in a young student.)
The first chorus of the head is most remarkable for its assurance and refinement. The uninitiated listener would never suspect the same musician is playing the clarinet and saxophone simultaneously. The intonation is especially remarkable to one who has attempted Kirk’s technique; Kirk’s pitch on both instruments is generally above reproach, except perhaps the C (B-flat concert) in measure 16. The articulation is clear and accurate. Of course, ensemble is not an issue—Kirk plays like a pair of well-trained and meticulously rehearsed musicians.
In the second chorus (m. 18), Kirk adds the vocal line (played on tenor). The most technically surprising feat here is the pitch bends in the tenor part. Pitch bends are most often accomplished by a change in “voicing,” involving the position of the back of the tongue (as in creating different vowel sounds in speech). The clarinet’s pitch, however, seems unaffected. Another possible method is to flatten the pitch by loosening the embouchure—impractical in Kirk’s double-horn technique. Kirk may accomplish these pitch bends by partially closing keys, though the smoothness of the bends belies this possibility. The solution to this mystery may lie in Kirk’s choice of notes in the clarinet part. In the first chorus, Kirk uses a sustained G (m.6) and a sustained E (m. 10) in the clarinet melody, but in the second chorus these notes change halfway into a D and a C respectively. There seems at first little reason to complicate the performance further by changing these notes. Closer inspection by a clarinetist, however, will disclose that the G and the E are both somewhat unstable (or easily altered) in terms of pitch, while the D and C are much more resistant to pitch change. A slight voicing change, perhaps used in conjunction with a fingered bend, would give the tenor’s B and B-flat (both easily bent) a bluesy affectation without hurting the clarinet’s pitch.
In the “solo” section, Kirk plays one instrument at a time (clarinet, then tenor), and uses both hands for each.
Kirk’s clarinet solo is a mixture of maturity and naiveté. His use of sustained notes and tremolos seem characteristic of a beginning improviser, but his rhythm and sense for development reveal him as an experienced artist. His note choices, though always appropriate, seem to studiously avoid difficult fingerings. His use of the blues scale in only the low register is especially telling; the B-flat to C to C-sharp would, in either octave of the instrument’s upper range, would strike fear into even a virtuoso’s heart.
The tenor solo suggests Kirk is more at home with this horn. He starts the solo with an altissimo G, a range reserved for advanced players. He also produces a growl on this note by singing and playing at the same time, another sophisticated technique. In measures 44-45 he creates a screaming effect by using the saxophone’s upper partials, an effect favored by rhythm-and-blues players, then improvises a repeating three-note blues motif, another R&B favorite.
In measure 49, Kirk returns to the two horns. He plays a line in octaves that continues into the beginning of measure 52. In this line, Kirk takes advantage of similarities in the horns’ fingerings, essentially doing the same thing with each hand. This suggests that these few measures may actually be improvised, an idea perhaps substantiated by an apparent technical slip-up trying to get back into the melody in measure 52.
The outchorus culminates in a free improvisation on tenor in measure 66. The clarinet continues an “open G” drone, so Kirk is freed to use both hands on the saxophone. The clarinet is, presumably, balanced perilously between embouchure and knee. The length of the final phrase hints that Kirk may be using the circular breathing technique for which he was well known, though it is certainly not impossible for a trained wind player to play a phrase even of this length in a single breath, especially if he has time to get a good breath in before beginning (such as the quarter rest at the end of measure 62).
Kirk’s “Creole Love Call” is a success. He rises above the novelty of playing two horns at once and creates a genuine musical masterpiece.
Appendix A: One-handed saxophone fingerings used in “Creole Love Call.” Sound M9 lower.
Appendix B: One-handed clarinet fingerings used in “Creole Love Call.” Sound M2 lower. These fingerings are ordinarily played with the left hand, but in this case are played with the right.