One Track Mind: Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971)

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NICK DERISO: I always think of the way-out multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who passed away 31 years ago on Dec. 5, with a bunch of horns in his mouth.

Yeah, he was an actual multi-instrumentalist.

It’s an iconic image, to be sure, but one that unfortunately seems to speak less anymore to virtuosity and as to a kind of cartoonish simplification of Kirk’s legacy.

For all his eccentricities (fitting a flute, for instance, with a trumpet mouthpiece, just to see what it would sound like), Kirk could be a staunchly sensitive interpreter. His was an undervalued genius in that he reached by turns for both inventiveness but also emotion.

Kirk, it’s true, used standards as a diving board, but it was always clear to me that he trusted in their lasting truths.

The photo, then, places too much emphasis on his heady experimentation through 1960s and ’70s sessions for Mercury and Atlantic, recordings where Kirk pushed himself to places of ecstatic creativity, in the style of Coltrane and Rollins.

Kirk’s broader goal, before his untimely death from a stroke at just 41, was defining a black classical music — not just free jazz. Thus, his forays into reinterpreting contemporary soul from the period.

“Ain’t No Sunshine,” a pop song made famous by Bill Withers, was part of Kirk’s terrific “Blacknuss” album. As with 1968’s “Volunteered Slavery,” we find Kirk not so much presenting rote rendition as lovingly pulling apart familiar sounds and rebuilding them with an angular eye. During an introduction (embedded below) to the title track, for instance, Kirk says: “There are 52 white notes and 36 black notes on the piano. We’re going to play the black notes only, if you don’t mind.”

The original liner notes on “Ain’t No Sunshine” have Kirk simply playing the flute. But he’s singing along, wordlessly, at the same time — something that rekindles the deeply confessional feel of Withers’ hit song, even while retaining a fervent penchant for improvisation.

Kirk skitters across the familiar lyric, then barrels through Withers’ compelling repetitive signature (“I know, I know …”), and later gets completely outside the structure of the tune through a series of yelps and cries, adding a new element of drama.

–Sample this soul favorite on “Hommage a Nesuhi,” a limited edition five-disc boxed set honoring producer Nesuhi Ertegun and the legendary artists he worked with over the years. It’s set for release on Dec. 15 on Rhino Handmade.

The original session, which features a powerful string section overseen by Joel Dorn, also included Sonelius Smith at the piano, Billy Butler on guitar, Henry Pearson on bass, Khalil Mhrdi on drums, Richard Landrum on congas and Joe Habao Texidor on percussion.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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