He is blind and has been since the age of two. His right arm, bandaged in two places, hangs limply at his side as a result of the massive stroke he suffered a little over two years ago. But Rahsana Roland Kirk continues to play jazz - and strong, soulful jazz at that.
That's not to say, of course, that one of jazz's most idiosyncratic reeds players hasn't had to make some adjustments because of his physical condition. The 41-year-old Kirk, who is appearing at Blues Alley through Saturday, now uses a special curved flute that can be played with one hand. And one of his favorite virtuoso tricks of the past - playing three horns at once, in complex harmony - has obviously had to be retired.
But any doubts about Kirk's continued ability to play the saxophone are immediately put to rest when he begins to blow his tenor on a very bluesy version of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." George Benson has had the most popular jazz reworking of this pop standard, but for sheer intensity of feeling and conviction, Kirk comes out on top.
Also impressive are "Bright Moments" and "Steppin' Into Beauty," the latter a new Kirk balled featuring fine solos by pianist Hilton Ruiz and trombonist Steven Turre. It is somewhat unusual for the second horn in a group to be trombone, but Turre, a capable young soloist who gets a gutty sound out of his instrument, justifies Kirk's faith in him.
Though Kirk once had a reputation for dabbling in the avant garde, his current group includes one very traditional element - a jazz singer. Michael Hill, who doubles as Kirk's valet, added his warm tenor voice to two very familiar standards, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Days of Wine and Roses." It's all a part of Kirk's very personal musical vision - and nothing is permitted to interfere with it.