Review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Hackney




Roger Farbey enjoys the simply stupendous European premiere of a "bebopera" centred on the last days of Charlie Parker

The European premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird opened on 9 June at the Hackney Empire and runs until Saturday 17 June with five shows in total. It had its world premiere at the Perelman Theater, Philadelphia in June 2015, receiving well-deserved acclaim. The following year the opera was performed at the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem, a venue at which Parker himself performed on many occasions from 1943 onwards.

One notable aspect of this Opera Philadelphia commissioned collaboration between the English National Opera and Hackney Empire is that it’s an opera based on jazz rather than a jazz opera. It might even be regarded as a bebopera given the subject. The music by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder is totally engaging and the libretto written by the African American poet Bridgette A. Wimberly is a highly moving epitaph to a jazz genius.

The opera tells of the demise of one of jazz music’s most significant protagonists and innovators. Parker’s final days were spent in a suite in the Stanhope Hotel, New York City as a guest of the jazz patron, Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka "The Jazz Baroness" or Nica for short. A close friend and supporter of Thelonious Monk too, she was the inspiration for several famous jazz tunes including Monk’s own Pannonica and Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream. Lawrence Brownlee (pictured above right) does a sterling job starring as the legendary saxophonist and punctuating the score with a highly impressive and wide-ranging technique. The narrative is presented in a series of vignettes depicting Parker’s tempestuous life in which he ran the gauntlet of heroin addiction, alcoholism and sundry heath problems.

Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic Bird, starring Forest Whitaker in the title role, made waves as a worthy paean to the great saxophonist, but this is the first time Parker’s life has been depicted in an opera. It’s an ingenious and innovative production which pushes the boundaries of the arts to their very limits, due in no small measure to imaginative writing and inventive composition.

This production was simply stupendous. For opera virgins the music and libretto transcended the immense stylistic differences between opera and jazz. Although it's true that the music wasn't jazz, its subject matter certainly was. The treatment was highly sympathetic to Parker's turbulent life and the portrayals of those closest to him including his band mate and friend Dizzy Gillespie and his mother Addie Parker - played brilliantly by Will Liverman (pictured with Brownlee, left) and Angela Brown respectively - were emotionally charged.

Musically speaking there were some deliberate allusions to what Ahmad Jamal refers to as "American Classical Music". Brownlee occasionally extemporised with brief forays into scat singing and during the Camarillo State Hospital scene an orchestrated 12-bar blues provided the backing.

But the ultimate accolade goes to jazz, and Parker of course, who reinvented jazz as bebop, because the libretto was highly knowledgeable about the genre (even to the mention of tritones) and witty and the outstanding world-class cast brought an entirely different dimension to the world of saxophones.

The only downside is the paucity of performances (five) in the UK. Jazz fans, who undoubtedly already have insight into the tragic life of Bird, will relish this outstanding performance. Rush to book now.


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