Roland Kirk

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A couple of days ago, with regard to the above album, I mentioned seeing the American multi-instrumentalist jazzman Roland Kirk at the Marquee Club in London; returning, this morning, to a poem I wrote about watching and listening to Kirk play, it states, clearly, that I saw him at St. Pancras Town Hall. So what? Did I see him twice? It’s possible. Or is my memory playing tricks? It scarcely matters. It’s the impact I remember clearly, not the venue. The way he sang/mumbled/hummed and played flute simultaneously (a trick later copied by others, including the late Tubby Hayes); played, as one of the following poems says, three reed instruments at once, two of them, I think, bolted together; the manner in which he punctuated his solos with a shrill blast from the whistle that hung down from his neck. Gimmicks? Maybe. But, for him, the channels of expression he needed to give vent to the music that seemed to surge through every fibre of his body.

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It’s been my pleasure on a good many occasions in the past to read the following two poems, “What Would You Say?” and “You Did It! You Did It!” with various aggregations of musicians, most notably the band, Second Nature, featuring Mel Thorpe on flute and Kirkian whoops and vocals. Sample it, if you wish, on Till It Shines, the CD we made back in 2004. A few copies still available and yours for a tenner, all proceeds donated to Medecin Sans Frontiers.

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What Would You Say?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch  – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boars –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

You Did It! You Did It!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St.Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.

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(Return of) The Random Playlist

Here it is again, after absolutely no requests from anyone … [though I’m told, once in a while, the odd individual has been inspired to delve down into his or her collection or go looking for stuff on the internet] … the first dozen tracks to spring out of my iPod set to random shuffle while wandering on the Heath, slightly heat-bedazzled, today Friday 3rd July …

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  • Durango : John Stewart,  from Cannons in the Rain
  • Blues for Alice : Roland Kirk, from We Free Kings
  • I Loves You Porgy : Miles Davis, from Porgy & Bess
  • She : Gram Parsons, from GP
  • Is This What You Wanted : Leonard Cohen, from New Skin for Old Ceremony
  • Central Reservation : Beth Orton, from Central Reservation
  • All of Me : Lester Young, from Lester and Teddy
  • That’s My Home : Humphrey Lyttelton, from Humph Swings Out
  • Cocaine Blues : Rambling Jack Elliott, from South Coast
  • Love Vibration : Josh Rouse, from 1972
  • That Old Feeling : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
  • It’s Getting Better : Mama Cass, from The Best of the Mamas & the Papas

One thing about shuffling music around this way, the sometimes neat, more usually incongruous connections it makes between one piece and another, is the memories it can throw up about where you first heard a certain song or album. [A thought that comes all the more readily to me now, I’m sure, because of the exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings I saw yesterday – more of which, I’m sure, in a day or two.]

But the John Stewart, released in 1973, I would have first heard at the house of my late friend and co-author, Laurence James whom I mentioned recently, an album – aside from The Phoenix Concerts Live, arguably Stewart’s best – which was rarely off the stereo in the ensuing years. As my older daughter, Leanne, once said of Stewart’s voice, and I paraphrase, it was there as a comforting presence throughout my childhood.

Kirk’s We Free Kings was first released in 1961 and it would have been later that I bought a copy, towards the end of the sixties, and ordered, I’m sure, from the lamented Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth. We were living in Andover at the time, in one of a newly-built row of council houses (you remember those?) on the edge of the town and ours to rent thanks to my new job as Head of English at Harrow Way Secondary Modern. [Kirk I’d been thrilled to see in London, I think at the old Marquee club, an experience that I’ve written about in the poem, “You Did It! You Did It!”, which might well find its way into a blog post soon.]

The Gram Parsons, GP,  was one of the two great albums he made with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Return of the Grievous Angel being the other, and I came to it in a slightly bizarre fashion. One of the girls in the school where I was teaching in Stevenage had been to see Gary Glitter at the Locarno the previous evening and in the interval a number of disparate LPs had been given away for free, one of them Return of the Grievous Angel. No fan of country music, she sold it to me for £1.00 next day. I took it home, played it, went up to London that weekend and bought its companion.

Quite a few evenings in the mid-sixties – far too many if my sad A level results are to be believed – were spent at the 100 Cub in Oxford Street, the Humphrey Lyttelton Club as it was in those days. Humph Swings Out was a 10″ LP, one of the first albums I owned, and features the seven piece band I would have listened to – danced to – at the club on many occasions: Bruce Turner on alto, John Picard on trombone, Humph on trumpet, Johnny Parker, piano, Freddy Legon, guitar, Jim Bray, bass and either Eddie Taylor or Stan Greig behind the drums. Little sign here of the more traditional style or repertoire that would have predominated a year or so earlier; this was well into, as we called it back then, the mainstream – based around the ensembles and riffs of the 40s and early 50s, more Kansas City than New Orleans.  “That’s My Home”, the track here, with Humph in clear Armstrong mode, harks back, in fact, more than most.

The most recent track comes from Josh Rouse’s album 1972, which stems, paradoxically, from 2003.
Molly Ernestine and I went to see Rouse earlier this year at Kings Place. He took time to warm up, the sound wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but the audience were firmly on his side – many of them singing along from the get-go – and by the end Rouse was enjoying himself and we were on our feet with the rest, surrendering, as Brinsley Schwarz would have sung, to the rhythm in earnest. Or in my case,  swayed my arthritic hips as  best I could.