Here Comes The Whistleman
Label M 495720

If there's a defining track on this reissue of one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's best-remembered LPs from the mid-1960s, it comes in a duet between him on tenor saxophone and elegantly eclectic pianist Jaki Byard on "I Wished On The Moon".

Just before the two transform the minor movie ballad into an emotional showcase with some heartfelt improvising, Kirk (1936-1977) starts talking about musicians who really know how to stretch. He recalls those who were so infused with music that they could create satisfying tunes with just a washboard or a telephone book if "real" instruments weren't around. He could be talking about himself.

For Kirk was the walking, talking, jiving definition of the itinerant jazzman. Although best known for the new instruments he introduced to the music — including manzello, stritch and nose flute which get work outs on this disc — and the fact that he played most of them at the same time, Kirk's work went deeper than that. Thoroughly conversant with the entire jazz tradition, from the most primitive blues to the farthest out space chord, he tried to play in as many of those styles as he could. And, unlike today's self-conscious neo-cons he usually succeeded, because he added a bit of himself to any song.

Byard (1922-1999) was that way too. A long time teacher at Boston's New England Conservatory, best known for his association with Charles Mingus, Byard added stride and other pre-modern flourishes to his playing simply because he wanted to amplify the tradition, not copy it. You can hear it here on the aptly titled "Roots", when he quotes from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the end of his solo. Or listen to him and Kirk — on manzello — caresses his own "Aluminum Baby". It's uptown blues at its toniest, an ersatz meeting of Teddy Wilson and Sidney Bechet in the drawing room, navigated by the sort of musical personas both men could slip in and out of at will.

Kirk had his raunchier side as well, of course, which may be why piano chores are passed onto Lonnie Smith, juke joint specialist par excellence, on other tunes. Smith's rollicking left hand is particularly noteworthy on hand-clapping, foot stomping romps like the title track, where Rahsaan exhibits his nose flute technique — "nose don't need no clothes" he shouts — and "Making Love After Hours", a showcase for his deep throated flute.

No crooner, drummer Crosby stays in the background, but bassist Major Holley starts out "Yesterdays" by simultaneous bowing his instrument and humming along in harmony. The invited studio audience even gets into the act when they're asked to toot penny whistles along with the Kirk-created mayhem of "Here Comes..."

Designed to be a "commercial" album, WHISTLEMAN succeeds where many other such attempts fail because the unselfconscious humor and entertainment was already part of what made up the personality of this multi-instrumentalist. He didn't have to limit his thinking and ideas as fusion flaunters and smooth jazzers hoping to make it big did so in the 1970s. Anyways, Kirk was too busy making jokes to care.

The only real criticism that could be launched at the disc is strictly extra musical. The entire CD lasts a little more than 35 minutes, woefully short in 2001 terms. Byard's first name is spelled incorrectly as "Jackie" throughout, and the reprinted original liner notes, while complimentary, don't give the sort of incisive view of Kirk's career and music that a contemporary writer could have provided.

The music itself, though, is a great ride.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Roots* 2. Here Comes the Whistleman# 3. I Wished On The Moon* 4. Making Love After Hours# 5. Yesterdays# 6. Aluminum Baby* 7. Step Right Up#

Personnel: Roland Kirk (tenor and alto saxophones, flute, nose flute, stritch, manzello); Jaki Byard* or Lonnie Smith# (piano); Major Holley (bass); Charles Crosby (drums)