Rahshaan Roland Kirk, Volunteered Slavery, Rhino 71407
Reviewed by Scot Hacker
Right around the time when a new form of psychedelic spiritualism was making its way into the American consciousness via the Maharishi and Peter Maxx, Broadway productions such as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell," and the prayers of Ayler and Coltrane, Roland Kirk was taking that vibe and merging it with the cultural spiritualism of gospel, blues, and the new black nationalism. Indeed, "Volunteered Slavery" became a hymn of sorts to the black nationalist movement. On the other hand, "Spirits Up Above" and "Search for the Reason Why" sound for all the world like tracks from the musical "Hair." Kirk was tapping into what he saw as a broad overlap of these elements which may have been invisible to external observers, but was not lost on his fans.
This is a peculiar album, not only because of the diverse sources from which it draws, but because it presents two quite disparate sides of the man. Most of side one is, quite frankly, cheesy. Except for the opening cut and some of the jam in "I Say a Little Prayer," the feel doesn't veer far from the originals by Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach. Not that they're similar to those in execution, but that they carry on more in a spirit of entertainment than of guts or conviction. Roland defends these song choices in the liner notes (reprinted from the original Atlantic release) by saying he plays these not from corporate pressure but because those are the tunes he likes, and that this is the essence of the idea of volunteered slavery.
Side two however (from Opening Remarks on), was recorded live at the 1968 Newport Jazz festival, and firmly bespeaks the energy of the event and of the era. "One Ton," which employs many of Kirk's more unusual tools such as stritch, manzello and nose flute, is a fast and cranky blues permeated with the ernestness of Kirk in full steam. Switching rapidly between the arsenal of instruments he wore around his neck, often playing several simultaneously, his vocalized moans, humms and shrieks are layered atop and through his solos. His nose flute warbles with amazing percussiveness; stritch and other reeds (it gets hard to tell them apart after a while) reel around in a delirious daze.
The triad medley of Coltrane covers reflects the time Kirk spent in Coltrane's band. Apparently much learning went down in that period, as Kirk plays in similar terms of spiritual endearment, though his musical sense of humor is much more up front than his mentor's (I don't think Coltrane ever employed the whoopee whistle in the middle of a lament, or laughed so heartily through his horn).
This release represents an odd concatenation of styles, but proves that Kirk could deliver the goods whether playing the role of showman (a epithet with which he was often criticized), notto-be-messed-with musician, preacher, or cultural spokesman. Hats off to Rhino for bringing these righteous chronicles back from the vaults.
Volunteered Slavery / Spirits Up Above / My Cherie Amour / Search for the Reason Why / I Say a Little Prayer / Roland's Opening Remarks / One Ton / Ovation & Roland's Remarks / A Tribute to John Coltrane: a) Lush Life b) Afro-Blue c) Bessie's Blues / Three for the Festival. 42:54.
Kirk, ts, flt, nose flt, manzello, stritch, gong, whistle, vcl; Ron Burton, p; Vernon Martin, b; Charles Crosby, d; Sonny Brown, d; Jimmy Hopps, d; Joe Habao Texidor, perc; Charles McGhee, tpt; Dick Griffin, tbn; The Roland Kirk Spirit Choir, vcls. 1968/69.