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Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Dog Years in the Fourth Ring

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Just as Rahsaan Roland Kirk was beyond category, so is Dog Years In The Fourth Ring, as it is neither a straight-up reissue or a compilation pegged to chronology or context. This imaginatively packaged three-disc set combines 18 previously unissued tracks from the ’60s and ’70s (including a “Rahsaantalk,” a recollection of a childhood friend, and a half-minute jam with a real howling wolf) with the long unavailable ’71 Atlantic solo album, Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata. With few exceptions, the new material is engaging; heard in tandem with Kirk’s daring real-time solo pieces, they flesh out a high-contrast portrait of this singular artist.

The six performances dating from the ’60s were recorded with blue-chip European rhythm sections. A ’64 Bremen concert with pianist George Gruntz, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Daniel Humair yielded a tart “Domino,” a solid “Blues for Alice,” a touching “I Remember Clifford” and swinging takes of “Sister Sadie” and “Three for the Festival” (the latter fades out after Kirk’s fascinating flute and voice cadenza, one of the set’s few questionable edits). An uptempo “Freddie Freeloader” was recorded at a ’63 Copenhagen concert with pianist Tete Montoliu, NHOP, and drummer Alex Riel. Clocking in at between three and eight minutes, each of these tracks has a crisp, concise quality that echoes Kirk’s contemporaneous studio recordings for Mercury.

The remaining material was culled from seven dates, beginning with a rousing “Petite Fleur” from a ’70 Paris concert with a quintet featuring pianist Ron Burton and drummer Jerome Cooper, and ending with a tour de force rendering of “Giant Steps,” extracted from a ’75 Pori, Finland concert with electric pianist Hilton Ruiz, NHOP and “an unknown Finnish drummer” (not only is the mid-catharsis crossfade to a minute-long snippet of a ’73 version of “Misterioso/Blue Monk” maddening, but so too is 32 Jazz’s laziness about the drummer’s identity, which would have taken them one e-mail to the Finnish Jazz Federation to ascertain: it is Esko Rosnell, who is far from unknown in Finland). Kirk’s holistic aesthetic is well represented by this sampling, which ranges from a muscular reading of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” (this ’73 Berlin performance features baritone saxist Kenny Rogers and pianist Donald Smith) to a holy-rolling interpretation of “I Say A Little Prayer” (Burton is all over this ’72 Boston tape).

In his original liner notes, Kirk called Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata “very revolutionary in its own way,” and time has proved him very right (though it is commonly referred to as “the solo album,” percussionists Joe Texidor and Maurice McKinley are on a few tracks and pianist Sonelius Smith is on “Day Dream”). Accompanying himself with what the AACM called “little instruments,” Kirk transformed what was previously a rich, albeit parenthetical component of his ensemble performances, into a free-standing elemental music. In doing so, he forces the listener to hear his multi-horn free associations and his serpentine asides not as charming, off-center diversions, but as pointedly structuralist works.