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Roland Kirk – Triple Threat

Updated: May 16

Before he was Rahsaan and before he’d left Columbus, where he was still known as "Ronnie," Roland Kirk recorded his first album, Triple Threat, for Cincinnati's King Records. Recorded on November 9, 1956, in New York City and released on a label not known for jazz (or Black Classical Music, the term Kirk preferred) and not promoted, the album didn’t sell and was largely forgotten even among collectors until it was reissued 20 years later as Early Roots. Now, the original King pressing has become one of the most collectible and sought-after jazz albums (currently available for over $2K on Discogs). Despite its obscure origins, this is a remarkable and groundbreaking album recorded by one of Columbus’ most towering musicians when he was just 20.

Triple Threat

King Records - 539


Front cover of Triple Threat

Considering his second album would be called Introducing Roland Kirk and the man himself generally didn’t correct the notion, it’s easy to see why for many years most thought that was his first album. I can’t imagine he was embarrassed by Triple Threat, which is a terrific debut, rather there was probably just no incentive for him to mention it. And the rear liner notes refer to his technique of playing three instruments at once as a gimmick. This would be an unfair rap on Kirk’s musicianship to this day. Smashing a guitar on stage is a gimmick, as Pete Townsend would be the first to admit. Pete was a big fan, but he also called Kirk’s technique a gimmick. Gimmick or not, playing three horns proficiently at once while often maintaining circular breathing, is a mind-bogglingly difficult task only a handful of musicians have ever accomplished - none with such artistry. I don’t think someone wanting to draw attention to themselves through gimmicks would pursue a career in jazz. In any case, he seemed to use the criticism to fire his drive and never deviated from his artistic vision.

Back cover of Triple Threat

Because of its obscurity, it’s very difficult to find any information about the recording. The rear liner notes mention he recorded in New York and the date comes from Jorgen Grunnet Jepsen’s Jazz Records reference book. Born Ronald Kirk, he was often billed and referred to as Ronnie Kirk in his hometown long after he changed his name to Roland. I found one reference to the album in the June 22, 1957 edition of The Ohio Sentinel, which confirms the New York recording location and pinpoints the release date as the week of June 9, but states it was recorded “a few weeks ago.” It seems unlikely an album would be released that quickly after recording, but who knows?

The musicians on Triple Threat, aside from session bassist Carl Pruitt, are also obscure. They’re all excellent players. I’d guess drummer Henry Duncan was a Columbus friend as his only credits are on Kirk albums. Triple Threat (and its various reissues) is the only credit I could find for pianist James Madison. There is a jazz drummer named Jimmy Madison who played on some of Kirk’s later albums (there is some confusion on because of the similarity in names and connection to Kirk). I located a bio of Jimmy that states, “James Henry Madison was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1947 into a musical family. His father was a pianist/composer who produced shows (including one with Dinah Shore) while in the army during WW2.” I suspect his father is the pianist on this record, but if you can confirm or refute this, or know any other info about these musicians, please leave a comment.

Side 1 Triple Threat label

Right out of the gate on Roland’s Theme these guys swing, and Madison’s piano solo is tasteful and effective. Kirk features the manzello (a straight soprano sax with a tipped bell often called a saxello) and tenor sax. On Slow Groove, we hear the stritch (Kirk’s name for his straight alto sax) and manzello played simultaneously. On Stormy Weather, we get some overdubbing of the tenor sax and manzello trading off the melody and leads. At this point, overdubbing was novel enough that the liner notes explain the “improvisations are over-dubs made possible by modern recording techniques.”

Side 2 Triple Threat label

Side 2 see's Kirk possibly displaying some Rusty Bryant influence with the R&B flavored A La Carte with "more than an echo of Night Train," as Dan Morgenstern wrote in his Early Roots liner notes. The title track opens with another nice James Madison piano solo and is a perfect summation of Kirk's tenor sax, manzello, and stritch "triple threat."

Kirk would add Rahsaan to his name in 1970 and would increasingly incorporate political monologues advocating for civil rights into his performances. He also founded the activist Jazz and People's Movement, aiming for jazz recognition and more Black performers featured in the media.

I have the Early Roots reissue from 1977 and dig it quite a bit. My polling location used to be at the Ohio State School for the Blind, which Kirk attended when it was on Parsons Ave. Wandering around after voting one evening, I spotted a plaque in the hall honoring Kirk. Pretty dang cool. Toledo’s Art Tatum is also an alum. In my opinion, Rahsaan Roland Kirk is not only the greatest musician to emerge from Columbus, but deserves to be placed right up there alongside the masters. But if you don’t take my word for it...

“When I die I’m not going to have a funeral. I’m going to have a jam session… Roland Kirk will be there.” - Jimi Hendrix

“Man, I would really like to make a record with Rahsaan.” - Duane Allman

“When you do a song like a Rahsaan Roland Kirk tune..., something kind of underground, it's out of a sense of this is an artist we love who we think is underappreciated.” - Derek Trucks

“Roland Kirk stormed his way through the most extraordinary feats of musicianship, dazzling jazz and showmanship. We were astounded by him.” - Pete Townshend

A1 Roland's Theme

Written-By – Roland Kirk

A2 Slow Groove

Written-By – Roland Kirk

A3 Stormy Weather

Written-By – Arlen*, Koehler*

B1 The Nearness Of You

Written-By – Carmichael*, Washington*

B2 A La Carte

Written-By – Roland Kirk

B3 Easy Living

Written-By – Robin*, Rainger*

B4 Triple Threat

Written-By – Roland Kirk

  • Bass – Carl Pruitt

  • Drums – Henry Duncan

  • Piano – James Madison

  • Tenor Saxophone, Manzello, Stritch – Roland Kirk

Plaque and relief in the Ohio State School for the Blind
Plaque and relief in the Ohio State School for the Blind

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