The Case of the Three Sided Dream
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