By Paul Acquaro
I'm not sure how Rahsaan Roland Kirks's music is best considered- it's not 'free jazz' - though it has elements of it in sound and spirit, and its certainly not 'traditional jazz', though he played standards. It was tuneful, soulful, unusual, and often defined by his use of multiple horns.
It seems that it was his own music, and it came purely from a world of sound. Kirk, who became blind because of medical care carelessness as a baby, lived in a world defined by sound, and by his own account, his dreams. Politics and fashions informed his music, but not as much as his own dreams. He asserted that it was the sounds that he heard in his dreams that he wanted to recreate with his multiple horns. It's this notion that provides the framework for Adam Kahan's documentary on Kirk, 'The Case of the Three Sided Dream,' which has finally received wide release, through multiple digital channels.
We first see Kirk in action, heading to a club date in the late-1950s/early-1960s, with a voice over of him introducing a song. Then, we backtrack to his early life. This part is quick, a brief discussion of his discovery of music, and then his move to New York in the mid-1950s. Interviews, concert footage, and snippets of candid moments are mixed with animation. Of course watching Kirk in action and getting a glimpse of the man behind the inflated tear is worth the time alone, but I kept asking myself at first, did the animation help? It lends a certain feel to the film, but aesthetics aside, I soon realized that the animation is key in evoking the imagination that drove Kirk's music making, it illustrates his dreams and provides a stream of connective imagery.
A real highlight is that the film consolidates footage from several televised concert specials by Kirk. It's a blast to see him in action with the multiple horns (even the kind of crazy nose whistle), and evolving from wearing a suit to the period fashions in the 70s. We learn a lot through interviews with people like his widow Dorthaan Kirk (who works at the Newark, NJ based powerhouse jazz radio station WBGO), and trombonist Steve Turre (who played with Kirk). Check out Turre's story about Kirk's circular breathing, and you get a sense of the mystical side of Kirk.
Recounted by friend Mark Davis, Kirk's political side also comes through. In the early 1970's, Kirk wanted to raise the stature of what he coined "black classical music" and used television - and whistles of course - as his medium. Interrupting an interview during a taping of the Dick Cavett show, his protest was parlayed into an invitation to perform on Ed Sullivan's show. Where, instead of performing the agreed upon song for this show, he assembled a band augmented by Charlie Mingus, Archie Shepp, and Roy Haynes, and performed a spirited version of 'Hatian Flight Song'. His political feelings also were expressed freely in his on stage banter and in his music, like the song 'Blacknuss', which is shown performed in a televised concert.
The impact of Kirk's first stroke, in 1975, is conveyed by Dorthaan Kirk in a moving, somewhat visually dramatized way. Kirk had just signed with Warner Brothers and his career and music, she explains, was entering a new level, when he suddenly collapsed in the family home. A video of a 1977 post-stroke performance is a stunning rebuttal to what had happened physically to the musician. Playing a modified horn which allowed the pinky of his working hand to compensate for his paralyzed one, 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' is an emotional tumult. Turre talks about how amazed he was at Kirk's ability that he would sometimes be watching him and forget to play. It was a second stroke, the day after a performance in 1977, that ended Kirk's life. He was only in his early 40s.
Kahan's film captures Kirk's character, determination, and pure musicianship through thoughtful stitching of interviews, existing footage, dramatizations and animations. It's a powerful story: a musician who did everything that he could to bring passion, politics, and feeling to the world through his music against surmounting odds.
The film is available on blue ray DVD, Vimeo, iTunes, Amazon, etc.