Documentary – Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case of The Three Sided Dream, by: Stephanie Carta

In our current era of hyper visuals and social media, would Rahsaan Roland Kirk, striking in his onstage persona with multiple woodwinds and assorted whistles hanging around his neck, have been more accepted than he was during his lifetime in the middle of the twentieth century? Maybe. Kirk was not the first to play multiple woodwinds simultaneously, but it is his life and music that has attracted new attention, discovered by a new generation fascinated and influenced by his unorthodox style. Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case of The Three Sided Dream, a documentary film by Adam Kahan, provides a very entertaining and invaluable look at a small slice of his life and career.  

Kahan’s film is made up of interviews with Kirk’s family, friends, and bandmates; a small selection of televised performances; and original animated segments. Interspersed between the live action, the colorful and lively animations are charming, embracing a visual style somewhere between School House Rock and Yellow Submarine. This is a mostly uplifting film. Refreshingly, its production style does not pander to the hyperactive or inattentive. Although Kirk’s life was cut short by natural causes, there is no overarching tragedy to portray (unlike the subjects of other documentaries that will be reviewed here in the future), leaving Kahan free to indulge in a whimsical style appropriate to his charismatic subject.   

Much of the discussion around Kirk’s legacy in jazz, or as he would call the genre, Black Classical Music, concerns whether or not one must downplay the visual spectacle of Kirk to appreciate his musical contributions. The documentary argues correctly that it was not a zero sum game between the visual and the sonic elements. Kirk sought attention not as a gimmick, as some critics claimed, a term Kirk reviled, but rather because of his child-like embrace of showmanship. The footage from his performances exude his infectious spirit.   

He was an artist who sincerely embraced the idea that music was a way to move people emotionally. As a young boy Kirk turned a garden hose into a trumpet, reminding me of a six year old student banging a stick against a light post while proclaiming that you can make music with anything. Perfecting the circular breathing technique, Kirk embraced the musical equivalent of a stream-of-consciousness literary point of view. Not needing to pause for a breath, he was free to blow with uninterrupted improvisational invention. Along with Kirk’s emotional impulse was his innovation on woodwinds either together or singularly.  Playing multiple instruments at the same time allowed him to explore new frontiers harmonically and melodically. He was a reed section “all together in one mouth,” also credited with creating “a brand new linear category on the saxophone.” I was particularly thrilled with the clips of him playing old school jazz on the clarinet.    

Kirk’s life off-stage, shown in glimpses from home movies, portray a devoted family man, well-adjusted despite being blinded as an infant by a nurse’s negligence. Some episodes in his life evoke not just sympathy but one also feels the injustice of the treatment of man with many targets upon him: creative, disabled, proudly Black. He suffered a stroke at age thirty-nine and was left partially paralyzed. Yet, he made a comeback, using instruments modified so he could play them one-handed, before passing away in 1977 at the young age of forty-two. Most of all, the main impulse for his life was not bitterness but an intrinsic love of sounds and expression in music. Kirk was attuned to sounds both ecological and anthropomorphic, a classic example of how being deprived of one sense heightens another.

Prior to recording under his own name, Kirk played with Charles Mingus. Unfortunately, Kahan skips over the Mingus years, focusing instead on his time recording and gigging under his own name. Fans must scour for other sources to fill in the blanks. His early career was appreciated by writer Barry McRae who astutely chronicled this era in some detail his 1967 text, The Jazz Cataclysm. It is heartening that McRae, a writer contemporary to Kirk, described him as a “brilliant soloist whose playing is full of humanity, humour and the vital reality that distinguishes the finest players.” This humanity is what attracts me to Kirk’s music and the factor that most explains the renewed interest in his life. Kirk was someone who learned the formal rules of music and theory, then felt free enough to disregard them.  

Other contemporaries appreciated Kirk as well. Walter Parazaider of Chicago, trained in classical clarinet before his vision of a rock band with horns came to fruition, has stated that he was a fan of Kirk’s and took a similarly heartfelt approach on saxophone and flute, boldly experimenting with free styles and injecting his own humor and showmanship at the right times too. Younger enthusiasts include guitarists Derek Trucks who recorded his own version of Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery” and saxophonist Jeff Coffin who can play both alto and tenor simultaneously.

Looking at Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s legacy from a twenty-first century lens, I think Kirk would share in the disappointment that Black music and Black artists are underrepresented in the Americana or American Roots Music genre. The moniker of Black Classical Music had nothing to do with comparing it to European classic traditional. Instead, Kirk believed that Black musical traditions were rooted in the American experience.  If the cerebral nature of post-swing jazz created a rift between it and roots music, Kirk did all he could to bring it back to those roots. Before viewing the film, I was unaware of Kirk’s activism and foundation of The Jazz and People’s Movement which took direct action to get more Black music and artists on television. Fast forward a few decades, the Americana scene is strangely made up mostly of white artists.

As someone fully enchanting by Kirk’s music in retrospect, I truly wish for a comprehensive and earnest biography of his life and career. Ultimately, The Case of the Three Sided Dream doesn’t give us that full picture. The film is, however, a heartfelt tribute. The joy Kirk brought to the stage, as well as the tragic misunderstanding of his music and mission, reverberated throughout. It is a communion with the fragile humanity of a blind Black man who was never afraid to speak his mind in music or in words and deeds.

(Rahsaan and his assorted instruments in an undated photo.)

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Chicago VI – the Quadio Mix, By: Stephanie Carta

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, evoking memories half-buried in our consciousness.  As a pre-teen sitting cross-legged on the floor of my childhood bedroom, I experienced Chicago’s second album for the first time, something I dug up and recovered from its undignified home in the family basement.  Though it is now thirty years removed from this memory, I still recall the fresh air wafting in from an open window mixing with the slight smell of mildew and the revelation that mom and dad’s records represented a golden era of musical virtuosity and experimentation.  Eventually, I collected more Chicago records.  These now nostalgic objects are in their fifth decade of life and not always the best listening experience.  

Despite the romantic nostalgia that original vinyl records bring, Chicago’s classic era catalog deserves modern technology.  To the delight of every generation of fans, Rhino Records has delivered, remastering not just the familiar stereo mixes but also the elusive quadraphonic mixes.  The Chicago Quadio box contains nine Blu-ray discs, all the albums that were originally released in quadraphonic stereo.  Each disc contains both the quadio and master stereo mixes in DTS format.  I will leave a technical description of this format to someone more qualified to explain it, but basically in addition to left and right speakers in front of the listener, a quadraphonic stereo system adds left and right rear speakers.  Audio engineers in the final mixdown have four channels  instead of two.  (In a room set up for quadraphonic stereo, the listener should be in the middle of a square with four speakers, one in each corner.)

The quad mixes of VI and VII stand out to me as the definitive way to listen to these wonderful albums.  (Chicago VII will be reviewed in future posts.)  While Chicago II remains my favorite album from their classic era, the quad mixes of their mid-70s efforts have given me new appreciation.  Probably not incidental with regards to sound quality, Chicago VI was also the first album recorded at Caribou Ranch recording studio, a more technologically modern facility for its time compared to their previous recording home at CBS 30th Street Studio.  While a vinyl record takes me back to my childhood bedroom, the quad mixes make me feel as if I’m at Caribou while they were recording these classics.  Yes, they are that good!

In terms of content, Chicago VI is something of a departure from the classic Chicago sound.  In an article posted on Chicago’s webpage, “Robert Lamm: Top Ten Records That Changed My Life,” the singer/songwriter cites the album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as an inspiration for showing him how powerful a statement music can make without embellishments.  Robert was drawn to “this kind of bare bones, raw aesthetic.”  His appreciation for stripped-down arrangements is interesting considering the layered vocals and his and Jimmy Pankow’s exhilarating horn harmonies that defines the Chicago sound.  It is here on their fifth studio album that they experiment in depth with some sparse arrangements.  While promoting VI, Jimmy told Circus magazine in an article published in September 1973 that up to that point, “everything’s beginning  to sound the same,” providing some insight into their non-formulaic approach of 1973.

The album opens up with Robert Lamm’s “Critic’s Choice,” the pure and rich tone of the acoustic piano panned in all four channels complementing the insistent and effected vocals.   If “Critic’s Choice” is a weighty song, Jimmy Pankow’s classic “Just You ‘n’ Me” lifts the mood, kicking off with its now iconic horn riff.  The lead vocal ably sung by Peter Cetera is less adulterated on the quad mix as compared to the stereo mix, letting the emphasis shift from the vocal to the brass, woodwinds, and lovely backing vocals.  Cetera’s vocal is confined to the phantom center channel, panned to left and right front but not rear).  Terry Kath’s rhytm guitar is also more apparent in the quad mix, not getting overpowered by the horns on the quad mix at all.  Throughout the quad mix each instrument occupies its own sonic place, the technology giving everyone in this big rock band the chance to be heard.  The sound from four speakers envelops the listener.  The drums are also alive with sizzle and presence, much clearer than the stereo mix on either vinyl or compact disc.   

The famous Chicago Horn section shines in quadio, blaring in all their glory.  Walter Parazaider’s soprano saxophone on Just You ‘n’ Me embraces their psychedelic rock band with horns ethos as it travels ethereally between the left and right channels.  His natural dynamics on his highest register sax are even more apparent and particularly appreciated.  I only wish that the studio version of Walt’s solo was extended like they play in concert.

Guitarists should also appreciate the quad mix as this album shows off Terry Kath playing some of his most bluesy guitar, particularly on “Darlin’ Dear” and “Rediscovery.”  Vintage pictures show Terry playing slide on a heavily customized Gibson Melody Maker with the majority of its body cut off.  On my vinyl copy of VI (not mom’s this time, something I picked up at a used record store), Terry’s guitar sounds buried, but his unique slide guitar is newly revealed on “Darlin’ Dear” in quadio.  Another welcome moment that feels like clouds parting to reveal the heavens is the Hammond B3 played by Robert during the ending of “What’s This World Coming To,” the kinetic energy of the rotating Leslie speaker is felt as well as heard!  This song also features Walter on baritone, his lowest register saxophone in a funky arrangement with the brass.

“Something In This City Changes People” and “Hollywood” are almost a mini suite, one flowing into the other and united by their common themes.  The former song was broadcast live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour featuring three-part vocal harmonies by Robert, Terry, and Peter.  Perhaps this live version overshadows the studio recording, but it’s a stand out track nevertheless and the first time Lee Loughnane’s slight raspy voice was heard on its own during the classic era.  He’s an underrated singer reminiscent of Dennis Wilson at his best.  The quad mix shows the effectiveness of the sparse piano and acoustic guitar arrangement, highlighted by Walter’s alto flute solo at the end.  Closing out the album is “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” a hit song and concert staple to the present day.  It is, however, the one tune on the album in which the stereo mix is superior; the electric piano driving the rhythm gets somewhat lost in the quad mix.

To sum up and put Chicago VI into context one should remember that in 1973, Chicago seems to have been under much pressure, mostly from clueless critics with quixotic agendas but little musical knowledge.  The audience was also fickle, and Chicago were feeling bored with the current music scene.  Even in that milieu, the quadio mix of VI reveals just how earnestly Chicago was about the craft of making music as they balanced the challenge of remaining commercially relevant and making sincere and creative statements with their music.  Chicago VI is a great album that transcends format but the quadio mix has done it the best justice it deserves.  However, in 1973 Chicago’s most eclectic and sonically wonderful work is just around the corner…

(Lee Loughnane, Terry Kath, Walt Parazaider, and Jimmy Pankow in all their rugged glory inside the gatefold of VI.)

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Nominate Chicago for a Kennedy Center Honor, By: Stephanie Carta

Chicago the band should be honored because of their artistic achievement and longevity in the field of popular music, a band who are celebrating their 50th anniversary in the year 2017.

Founded in 1967 as a “psychedelic rock band with horns,” Chicago featured seven talented individuals, some with classical and jazz training, while others were intuitive talents, all gifted in many different styles of music including r&b, jazz, rock, pop, and soul. Together they created a unique horn-driven progressive hard rock sound, blazing into the public consciousness in 1969 with their first album, the Chicago Transit Authority.

Their second album, simply called Chicago, featured a seven-movement rock suite written by trombonist James Pankow, Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon. They continued to break new creative ground throughout the 70s as their songs, instrumentals, and suites featured time signature and key changes that are rare in popular music.

As a live band, the fiery guitar and soulful baritone voice of Terry Kath dominated the stage. They filled stadiums and arenas and also made in impact on college campuses, playing to their peers across the USA and world. Robert Lamm’s intelligent and socially-conscious lyrics challenged them all to think about the status quo and how to change it. Their fourth album was a four-record set recorded live at Carnegie Hall.

Many of their tunes have become rock anthems. Robert Lamm’s Saturday in the Park is loved by many generations to this day. Countless couples were married to Colour My World. Peter Cetera’s If You Leave Me Now was their first number one hit song.

At the same time, along with radio hits and ballads, they continued to explore new creative grounds. Chicago VII featured the gentle and expressive flute of woodwind player Walter Parazaider in a more prominent jazz fusion role, and his Coltrane-inspired style on the soprano saxophone was a favorite in their live shows. Danny Seraphine’s drums recalled the hard bop styles of Max Roach and Art Blakey. James Pankow took the blueprint of JJ Johnson and applied it to a new context, creating a new role for himself that was without precedent, a rock and roll trombone player.

Trumpet player Lee Loughnane has said that they’ve been together so long that they’ve had eras. Yet his trumpet solo on Introduction is just as clear and stylish as it was in 1969, if not more. And they aren’t going anywhere. Their latest album, entitled Now, featured a reinvigorated band with new creative energy. The original members, Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, and Walt Parazaider, meshed perfectly with the great musicians who join them on the road.

In 2016, Chicago were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a great honor that was too long coming. Yet, for their lyrical deepness, high energy live act, and unique instrumentation, they are a band apart from their peers. Chicago were, and are, a unique band that has thrived in six different decades and touched the lives of multiple generations of fans.

(Walter Parazaider, on stage with Chicago in 1973)

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