Roland Kirk – Volunteered Slavery
(Atlantic/Music On Vinyl MOV1163. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
In the mid 1960s Roland Kirk shifted his allegiance from Mercury Records to the Atlantic label, where he worked regularly with producer Joel Dorn (Dorn’s young assistant was none other than Hal Willner — link below). This reissue of prime Atlantic era Kirk combines live recordings from his debut Newport Festival appearance in 1968 (side 2) with studio tracks recorded a year later at Regent Sound Studios in New York (side 1). The line up is virtually identical throughout — although the album’s original sleeve notes are remarkably unforthcoming about which one of the three drummers might be present on any given track.
Volunteered Slavery, a Roland Kirk composition, opens with his warmly haunting sax which harmonises with the bass by Vernon Martin. Percussion creeps in (the drummer, on this track only, is reportedly Charles Crosby) and is joined by vocals courtesy of the Roland Kirk Spirit Choir. The tune broadens out with the inclusion of piano by Ron Burton and Dick Griffin on trombone while Charles McGhee’s trumpet slices high notes. Then Kirk’s oscillating saxophone modulates, astonishingly, into Hey Jude — a very creditable rendering, too, although this Beatles composition is not credited anywhere on the sleeve.
That said, Roland Kirk is no stranger to popular music; in 1964 he recorded a marvellous version of Cy Coleman’s I’ve Got Your Number. This interpenetration of pop and the avant-garde continues when Spirits Up Above (with Kirk’s sax sliding like a high speed skier before he goes all R&B) gives way to Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour which kicks off in a manner that would offend no one’s maiden aunt, as Kirk plays pretty and decorous flute which would have made the composer proud — though it’s intriguing to speculate whether Wonder would endorse the nasal braying and manic chatter that Kirk summons up later on.
Some striking Sun Ra style electric organ (again maddeningly uncredited on the album cover; but research reveals it to be the handiwork of hard bop keyboard man Mickey Tucker) waves and wavers in ragged aurora borealis banners over a Roland Kirk vocal introduction paying tribute to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King. This menacing, descending cascade of sound then starts into some groovy chugging and reveals itself as — another surprise — Say a Little Prayer for You, a Bacharach/David masterpiece played at breakneck double time. Roland Kirk blows big brassy high-calorie sax which attenuates into something of great beauty. It’s a constantly changing trip, though, and a snatch of Loony Tune style sound effects fleetingly invoke the spirit of Spike Jones — the listener half expects a pistol shot; although in a tribute to Dr King that would have been a tad tasteless. Despite the gravity of the occasion, Roland doesn’t seem to taking things entirely seriously. Yet both as a deconstruction of the Bacharach tune and a gutsy, faithful rendering of it, this track decisively succeeds.
As good as the studio side of this album is, many prefer the live set, and the listener soon discovers why. One Ton is another Roland Kirk original. It has a forceful, punching sound emphasised by Ron Burton’s percussive piano. Kirk’s flute has a raw, hollow sound and is blown in phrases of choppy, stomping brevity while Burton scatters powdered-sugar piano over the reed playing. The excitement level here is tangible and communicates itself to the listener. When Kirk changes to the nose flute he is able to play lines and sing along at the same time, taking a spacious high-wire solo. Then the ensemble joins in again, galloping and thundering breathlessly — and you kind of wonder if the brakes will take hold before the whole enterprise careens over a cliff. They do. The band stops on a dime.
After a heartfelt dedication (“I was playing this before he split”) Roland Kirk launches on a Coltrane medley, opening with a soaring, towering Lush Life which eases into a restrained, impeccable exploration of the satiny contours of the Strayhorn classic. Mongo Santamaría’s Afro-Blue is strident and acerbic, rolling on a turbulent current of bass from Vernon Martin. Coltrane’s own Bessie’s Blues is upbeat, swinging and light hearted before Kirk’s dense, complex sax gives it some gravitas. On Three for the Festival the leader’s flute takes no prisoners while his partner in crime Burton plays long, chiming runs on the piano. The piece — and the album —ends, appropriately enough, with a police whistle.
This is a classic Roland Kirk album and it also happens to be a nice heavy slab of vinyl with a gorgeous, crystal clear audio quality, being one of the best sounding Music On Vinyl reissues to date — open and clear, with a great dynamic range.