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 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. 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.
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 a 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. 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, “The Inflated Tear,” a reference to a childhood incident of over-medication that turned a young Kirk from partially to fully blind, is the prize, 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.” And that’s a gift worthy of thanks.
-Tim DuRoche, host of The New Thing, Mondays 9-10 PM