The Case of the Three Sided Dream

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Down Beat Born To Be Blue, Bright Mo­ments, Miles Ahead

What do blind men hear in their dreams? Vi­sion­ary in­stru­men­tal­ist and com­poser Rah­saan Roland Kirk, who lost his sight in in­fancy when given the wrong eye drops, heard the sound of sev­eral horns all be­ing played by a sin­gle man, along with snatches of lyrics, com­mands to change his name, and a call to serve the mu­sic. From the late 1950s, when his tech­niques for play­ing var­i­ous in­stru­ments si­mul­ta­ne­ously were honed, un­til his death in 1977, Kirk was a mu­si­cian apart. He al­most al­ways led his own bands, though early on he did a brief stint with Charles Min­gus as well as a one-off record­ing with Quincy Jones. He did not just limit him­self to unisons when play­ing mul­ti­ple in­stru­ments, but con­structed rich, some­times un­usual har­monies or, in amaz­ing dis­plays of breath con­trol, played them in coun­ter­points.

Even as they ac­knowl­edged the beauty and in­sis­tence of Kirk’s mu­sic, mul­ti­ple horns or not, mem­bers of the jazz press didn’t quite know what to make of him. He reg­u­larly won the miscellaneous in­stru­ments cat­e­gory for his play­ing of ob­scure sax­o­phone hy­brids in both mag­a­zine’s fan and crit­ics polls, votes that sug­gested he was be­yond cat­e­go­riza­tion. Crit­ics used the term “gim­mick” to de­scribe his multi-in­stru­men­tal ap­proach, and Kirk came to de­spise the la­bel not only as a slur on his mu­sic but as a kind of pa­tron­iza­tion with which, as a blind black man, he was well fa­mil­iar.

Since his death, Kirk’s rep­u­ta­tion as jazz anom­aly has been slowly re­placed by a know­ing ac­knowl­edge­ment of his one-of-a-kind ge­nius. Adam Ka­han’s in­trigu­ing doc­u­men­tary, The Case of the Three Sided Dream — its ti­tle taken from Kirk’s 1975 re­lease The Case of the 3 Sided Dream In Au­dio Color — should help de­stroy any re­main­ing no­tions of Kirk as a nov­elty act, and fur­ther but­tress his legacy as a true mu­si­cal gi­ant. Not a small man, Kirk was an even larger pres­ence on a band­stand, in­flated with the bulk of three in­stru­ments hang­ing from his neck, some­times a fourth tucked un­der his arm, along with a flute stuck in the bell of his tenor or in a sling swing­ing from his shoul­der. He played mix-and-match with flutes and recorders (some­times play­ing them through his nose), tenor sax and clar­inets, the an­tique stritch and manzello, conch shells, whis­tles and as­sorted other noise­mak­ers. Like his con­tem­po­rary John Coltrane, Kirk pur­sued get­ting out­side the mu­sic with vir­tu­osic tech­ni­cal fa­cil­ity, even while per­form­ing tunes (like Min­gus, he fa­vored Elling­ton) from out of the jazz tra­di­tion. But past the sheets of sound and fleet fin­gers, Kirk’s as­tound­ing abil­i­ties were mostly his own. He was truly a one-man horn sec­tion, com­plete with reeds and wood­winds, able to play his mul­ti­ple in­stru­ments in uni­son, in har­mony or at op­po­si­tion, us­ing the not-un­com­mon tech­nique of cir­cu­lar breath­ing in com­pletely un­com­mon ways.

Ka­han in­cludes the oblig­a­tory in­ter­view com­ments from ac­quain­tances and for­mer band mem­bers to un­der­score just how unique Kirk’s mu­sic was. But they’re hardly needed. Mostly, Ka­han lets Kirk make his own case by in­clud­ing long stretches of video record­ings and se­lec­tions from Kirk’s LPs. The man him­self is heard, of­ten over col­or­ful an­i­ma­tion pro­jected on a black back­ground, mostly from the stage pat­ter that Kirk was known to in­ject at length be­tween tunes, some of it taken from snatches left on his live record­ings. This too con­founded fans and crit­ics, who, in­spired by the speech­less stage pres­ence of Miles Davis, thought it crossed the line di­vid­ing art from en­ter­tain­ment (1973’s with Kirk’s long politi­cized rant, was his most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful re­lease). Ka­han uses these from-the-band­stand di­a­logues, along with home-movie clips, to give glimpses into the man’s per­son­al­ity. The cur­rent crop of jazz biopics — Don Chea­dle’s and

with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker — pro­vide plenty of imag­ined back story to the hazy ques­tion of what ex­actly in­forms great mu­si­cians, but lit­tle in the way of an an­swer, other than drugs or vi­o­lence. The Case of the Three Sided Dream has no gun play or car chases. No­body gets their teeth kicked in. But Kirk’s mo­ti­va­tion is clear. He was pur­su­ing his dreams, in ev­ery sense. And he was de­ter­mined to over­come any ob­sta­cles that might stand in the way.

Ev­i­dence of this de­ter­mi­na­tion is es­pe­cially ap­par­ent af­ter Kirk suf­fered a stroke in 1975 that left him par­a­lyzed in one arm. He jury-rigged the keys to his sax­o­phone — Kirk con­stantly mod­i­fied and hy­bridized in­stru­ments dur­ing his ca­reer — so that he could play as if with two hands, though only us­ing one. Al­ways an elo­quent and en­gag­ing soloist when im­pro­vis­ing on a sin­gle horn, Kirk shows in a 1976 clip that he was still ca­pa­ble of play­ing what he heard in his dreams. By em­pha­siz­ing Kirk’s drive and artis­tic re­source­ful­ness, Ka­han does some­thing not all jazz doc­u­men­tar­i­ans do: make you love the sub­ject as well as the mu­sic. — Bill Kohlhaase

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