Reviving the explosive music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk

By Howard Reich

Chicago Tribune

Jan 08, 2016 at 9:26 am

Chicago saxophonist Juli Wood has won considerable acclaim for the rambunctious virtuosity of her work on a variety of horns, but there’s more to her appeal than that.

Equally important, Wood has emerged as an intriguing conceptualizer, creating projects that shed light on specific jazz eras and soloists. Her Chicago Calling band explores repertoire widely identified with this city; her tribute to Johnny Griffin pays homage to one of the greatest tenor men Chicago ever has produced; and her recent recording “Synkka Metsa” transforms music of her Finnish heritage.

Each of these ventures, and others, has its virtues, but perhaps none is quite as ambitious as Natalies Wood Plays Roland Kirk, an ensemble that re-examines the oft-explosive music of saxophone giant Rahsaan Roland Kirk and will open its most prominent engagement to date Jan. 14 at the Jazz Showcase.

Kirk, a blind musician who died in 1977 at age 41, commanded a monumental technique in a wide range of jazz idioms, though he’s probably most famous for having played three horns at once. This was not a mere stunt but, rather, a means for unleashing torrents of sound and a profusion of ideas.

To try to capture the fervor of Kirk’s work, while also exploring it from contemporary perspectives, Wood last year convened saxophonists Natalie Lande and Natalie Scharf to join her in the new band (hence the name Natalies Wood), with Matt Ferguson on bass, Brian O’Hern on piano and Mike Schlick on drums. The idea for the ensemble — which debuted last May at Constellation and had subsequent engagements at Andy’s Jazz Club and the Green Mill Jazz Club — was to see if three saxophonists could evoke the force of nature that was Kirk.

“I was watching on YouTube some Roland Kirk clips,” recalls Wood, of how the idea for the band originated, “and just letting that sink in: Oh my God, this beautiful music — quirky but beautiful — is coming out of this one guy, who’s able to play three horns at once.

“And then it just popped in my head: I don’t know anyone but (Chicago saxophonist) Ari Brown who can play two at once, and I don’t know anyone who can do three.

“So I thought: We’ll have three saxophonists reproduce some of those sounds. Then I thought: Wow, it could be women.”

This was a significant leap to make, for women have been marginalized in jazz practically since its inception. Notwithstanding the groundbreaking work of historic instrumentalists such as pianist Lil Hardin (who was married to Louis Armstrong) and trombonist Melba Liston (a major composer-arranger) and the more recent contributions of violinist Regina Carter and bassist Esperanza Spalding, among others, the world of jazz has been dominated by men — and continues to be.

So by staffing Wood’s front line entirely with women, she surely is making a statement, all the more because Kirk’s music exudes power and muscularity.

“Yeah, he was a big guy,” says Wood. “He certainly could blow — it’s very aggressive-sounding.

“I just thought it would be nice to give some younger players a chance. I thought: Pat Mallinger is fantastic — and what other guy would play this music great?

“But then I thought: There is a visual element … to have three women as the horn section. But also it just felt good to me to give some talented young players a chance to be in something, and they’re very eager to do it.”

Indeed, Wood quickly realized that her colleagues hungered for an opportunity to transcribe Kirk’s compositions, relieving the leader of some labors while generating far more material than Wood alone might have had the time to generate.

Even so, it took several months for these musicians to write out the scores, then test out the concept in performance. Though Wood says audiences approached her after sets to express enthusiasm about the music, many also said they’d never heard of Kirk.

This only encouraged Wood to continue developing the project.

“I think we kind of have to educate,” she says, “and that’s something I like to do: Explain that he could play all three horns at once. He used to end a solo with some kooky whistle or horn, so we kind of get that humor in, too.

“Hopefully, if I say the name enough, and it’s in the title of the band, you’re hoping people will go Google him and look him up and start getting a sense of what a wild and wonderful musician he was.

“He’s a really a great musician. He’s not making noise with those three horns. He’s really playing some neat stuff.”

Because the venture is still so new, Wood hasn’t yet made any plans to record. Instead, she’s focusing on her hopes of creating new music inspired by Kirk. Along these lines, pianist O’Hern has added an original composition to the mix, while saxophonist Scharf brought to the repertoire Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” (famously recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears), all dispatched in the manner of Kirk.

“I sing it,” says Wood, referring to “And When I Die,” “and then at the end, when I’m going off on a weird stream-of-consciousness thing, whatever comes to mind, the Natalies are going off with saxophones.

“At first, I thought this is kind of weird. Then I thought: No, this is in the style of what he’d do.”

We’ll soon find out how it plays. At the very least, though, Wood and friends are serving a noble cause: championing the distinctive art of an overlooked jazz master.

Twitter @howardreich

“Portraits in Jazz”: Howard Reich’s e-book collects his interviews with Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as profiles of early masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get “Portraits in Jazz” at

When: Thursday through Jan. 17

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court

Tickets: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or