Giant Steps

New Rhino reissues illuminate the bold leaps of '60s jazz heavyweights

Whereas Coltrane practically cloistered himself in pursuit of his muse, bassist Charles Mingus remained totally engaged, in a social and political sense, in the events going on around him. If little of Coleman or Coltrane's music spoke specifically about being black, Mingus (a native Arizonan, by the way) often wore his race on his sleeve, turning the music of the black church to his own ends in such tunes as "Better Get Hit in Your Soul." In the liner notes to the March 1960 release of Blues & Roots, Mingus admitted that the idea for a record focused on the blues came from producer Nesuhi Ertegun, and said it was a response to criticism that Mingus didn't swing.

Mingus, who did on a number of occasions overintellectualize his music, delivered a passionate, earthy recording to silence his critics. Beginning with the gospel flavor of "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," Mingus made his expanded group of nine players dig into a place where carnality and spirit merged. The ensemble passages rock with the force of a larger group.

Multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk remains the most overlooked of this group of musicians. This is probably because Kirk's music was the least well-served by his recordings. Ironically, Kirk, blind almost since birth, was a particularly compelling visual performer, known for playing up to three horns at once. This was no gimmick. His embouchure (the position of a player's lips when blowing into the horn) was not perfect, so he'd get more squeaks when he played multiple horns, but the sight and sound of this one-man horn ensemble was a remarkable thing to experience. Certainly, there never was a tighter horn section. When Kirk played a single instrument, he leaned toward tenor saxophone or flute. When playing flute, he would sometimes vocalize into it.

Kirk got many ideas from dreams. He changed his name from Ronald to Roland, and later added the name Rahsaan, all because these names came to him in dreams. So did the multiple-horn idea.

Where Coleman and Coltrane essentially always played in their style, whatever it might be in a particular phase of their lives, both Mingus and Kirk were eclectic and used elements from every style of jazz and the blues in their music. Kirk so fully understood the music that even when he played snatches of New Orleans-style, it sounded thoroughly contemporary and alive, a feat that has completely eluded such highly touted modern-day performers as Wynton Marsalis.

Unlike the other four albums in this batch, The Inflated Tear was recorded late in the decade (1967) and released in June 1968. Coltrane's death in 1967 saddened Kirk, and may have influenced some reflections on his own mortality. The Inflated Tear was about being blinded accidentally when a nurse put too much medicine in his infant eyes.

The song's overwhelming opening line, in which Kirk blows three horns with all his might, gives way to a sad but dreamy melody. The whole album juggles moods in much the same way, from melancholy to an almost joyous sense of triumphing over adversity.

Much as Giant Steps marked the beginning of Coltrane's best period, The Inflated Tear heralded Kirk's top phase. He followed with a number of strong efforts, such as Volunteered Slavery (possibly his best album) and Blacknuss.

Soon after, this era of jazz closed out. The persistent echoes, though, haven't faded yet.

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