Reviews of Testimony: The Legend of Charlie Parker
Swinging in Bird's Paradise
The king of bebop has returned to haunt us.
For modern jazz players, Charlie Parker is “like Bach is to classical musicians'‘, says Australian saxophonist and composer Sandy Evans. She’s explaining her involvement in the music-and-theatre piece Testimony- The Legend of Charlie Parker, which gets its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday as part of the Sydney Festival, before a slot at the Melbourne Festival in October.
* "You keep going back and looking at him as an example of a classic way to swing, to create beautiful sound, to put melodies together, to incorporate spontaneity while outlining structure,’‘* Evans says, calling Parker * "such a perfect role model for how to be an improvising horn player that you constantly refer back to him’‘. *
Alto saxophone genius Parker – famously nicknamed ‘Bird’– died in 1955 at the age of 34. His life was marked by heroin addiction, suicide attempts, a six-month spell in a psychiatric hospital and frequent outlandish behaviour. It also saw the creation of some of the most brilliant and original jazz the world has heard.
Parker, with his trumpet-playing colleague Dizzy Gillespie, revolutionised jazz during the 1940s swing era, distilling popular music into a sharply angled modernist art form called bebop. He introduced a technical virtuosity and harmonic sophistication that had the jaws of contemporaries dropping in disbelief (and sometimes jutting in hostility; then, as now, the new was seen in some quarters as a threat).
Having begun life as an ABC radio piece, Testimony, under Nigel Jamieson’s direction, draws on music, poetry and elaborate lighting and production design to reassess Parker’s life story.
Evans has put her well-known tenor and soprano sax playing in the back seat to concentrate on her role as composer and arranger, with American poet (and former Australian resident) Yusef Komunyakaa providing the words.
Playing the music is Paul Grabowsky’s 19-piece Australian Art Orchestra (with the crucial alto saxophone roles taken by Lachlan Davidson, Paul Cutlan and Elliott Dalgleish), while 11 local jazz and blues singers – including Shelley Scown, Kristen Cornwell and Joe ‘Bebop’ Lane – handle a song apiece.
For Komunyakaa, Parker’s life represents the struggle and tragedy of African-Americans of the ‘30s and '40s. Yet this was hardly a conventional hero or a victim, rather someone who would take a leak in a club phone booth or, for kicks, have sex with the most obese woman he could find. A man sometimes so stoned he would nod off on the bandstand, be nudged awake when it was his turn to take a solo, and astonish everyone with his playing before sitting down and falling back to sleep. How might such a larger-than-life persona represent the tragedy of an entire race?
Evans says that Bird’s drug habit and his spell in the Californian mental home, Camarillo, are in the text and that “one of the exceptional things about Yusef’s poetry is that he just has a way of marrying an image, an event and the sound of words. It sounds like a big ask, but he does bring those things together with his passion in a way that does express the struggle and suffering of African-Americans of that time. Having said that, it’s not as if the piece is a big political statement – it’s more multi-layered.‘’
* There’s also the question of how to be true to the spirit of a once radical music that familiarity has long since rendered safe. A couple of Parker tunes – Ko Ko and Moose the Mooche – are included, but elsewhere Evans has written contemporary pieces inspired by, and quoting from, Parker’s music. Her approach, she says, has much in common with the rearrangements of ‘30s jazz tunes in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, and producer Hal Willner’s 1992 CD tribute to Charles Mingus, Weird Nightmare*, where contemporary players bring a fresh sensibility to classic jazz.
Testimony, she promises, will be a new musical experience. For example, her overture and finale include fragments of Parker themes – but played against one another in counterpoint, with a new bassline and samples of radio broadcasts from the era. Mostly, though, this is a vocal project, Evans says, and all the songs are original compositions.* “For example, I might have used chord progressions from a Parker song and written my own melody, or used some lines from his solos as backing figures in the arrangement – or even more [avant-garde] 20th-century devices [like] using some of his lines played backwards.‘’ *
She recalls her reaction on hearing for the first time a recording of Parker and Gillespie’s celebrated 1953 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “The energy and danger of that performance just jumped out at you,‘’ she says,* "so with the arrangements I’ve tried to create that energy from a contemporary perspective. That’s why I’m really thrilled about [working with] the Art Orchestra, which has a very good chance of creating that life and energy from the modern perspective. Which I don’t feel we’d do if we went in there and said, OK, we must play this solo the way Charlie Parker played it.‘’‘ *
- The Australian (Lynden Barber), 11 Jan 2002
Sydney Festival: Myths, histories and projections
At this year’s Sydney Festival the mood was more contemporary than in recent years with the best work of the handful of shows I saw certainly coming from Australians: Sandy Evans' jazz oratorio Testimony, with the Australian Art Orchestra and a long line-up of great vocalists, and Kate Champion’s Same same But Different, a complex multimedia, dance theatre work. Both works were joint initiatives of the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals (Testimony is also supported by the Sydney Opera House), so they will live again with welcome room to move and improve and impress larger audiences.
Testimony: The Legend of Charlie Parker
Jazz has rarely found a home in Australia’s international arts festivals. Concerts are one thing, but an outright celebration of jazz is something else, and that’s what Testimony is. First it is a response to the work of the jazz great, Charlie Parker, by an American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, in 14 sonnets arranged or (mostly) musically composed by Sydney saxophonist Sandy Evans, or spoken by Bobby C. Secondly, it is implicitly a tribute to Australian jazz, to the musicians of the always impressive Australian Art Orchestra (under the direction of Paul Grabwosky) and in turn the many outfits with which they play, to the many vocalists who perform in Testimony, and not least to Evans herself. She treats Komunyakaa’s words with respect and verve and has created some outstanding compositions. The CD is eagerly awaited.
The challenge in theatricalising what was originally a work for radio is to not diminish attention to the words and music. Director Nigel Jamieson, designer Dan Potra and video artist Andrew Savage achieve this by making the orchestra the visual centre of the action. A small ensemble of shifting dimensions (but always with piano, bass and drums) occupies the forestage and is frequently joined by vocalists. Meanwhile, the orchestra is encased in several storeys of scaffolding with full-scale screens front and back (the forward one is raised and lowered). Members of the orchestra can be spotlit. The orchestra can be disappeared or silhouetted. Images appear in front of them and behind, as if peering through. They range from the face of the narrator, to big city scapes, buses and cabs moving dreamily towards us, 50s style decorative patternings, maps, trains and chain gangs. A repeated, poignant slo-mo, kaleidoscopic shot of Parker playing as his life goes to pieces (‘He was naked…’) is paralleled by the orchestra and violinist John Rodgers performing a dark, modernist fragmentation, followed by a divine, sustained lament.
The constructivist impulse of the staging means that the simple set is constantly transformed, lighting and projections altering the depth of field, evoking movement (a camera tracks up the Chrysler Building; huge industrial wheels turn), providing visual motifs corresponding to musical and poetic images. At times there’s a superfluity of images, too literal, too much video clip business when the music is already hard at work, and too many visual styles relieved only by returning to key images.
Komunyakaa’s poems comprise fragments of a life (including the death of Parker’s daughter, his temporary recuperation from heroin addiction), impressions (‘always on the move on some no-man’s land’), character (‘enough irony to break the devil’s heart’), desires (his favorite food, chicken) and the poet’s own witty be-bop-inspired litanies, ideal material for Evans. The poems are served best when they become the lyrics for Evans' compositions. Testimony does not in fact narrate Parker’s life and only falters when it slips in that direction, or promises to and can’t. It’s a pity that on opening night the song lyrics weren’t always audible in the awkward sound mix and, worse, that they hadn’t been reproduced in the printed program.
There were too many high points, too many excellent performances to single out here save to mention that some of the most eccentric moments were the most celebratory: Jackie Orzacksy singing and playing electric bass on Abel & Cain and the indefatigable Joe ‘Be-bop’ Lane scatting on Barrow Street and Moose the Mooch. The blend of small, taut ensembles and a magnificent, burnished big band sound, the classiness and confidence of the 11 vocalists (8 of them women) and the occasional bursts of raw but always coherent and plangent sax and trombone, made for one of the most memorable festival shows in Sydney for a very long time.
‘Take a bow Christopher Williams of (ABC) Audio Arts,’ wrote John Shand opening his review for the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan 18). Sad to say, Soundstage, the program for which the innovative producer Williams originally conceived and commissioned Testimony, is no more, a victim in 2001 of ‘reform’ at the ABC that has greatly reduced the possibility of creating such large-scale, cross-artform, stereophonic art works.
- Real Time (Keith Gallasch), January 2002
Soaring Tribute to Jazzman Bird
Testimony: The Legend of Charlie Parker is an audiovisual feast of music, poetry, film and staging. Developed originally for ABC radio’s Soundstage in 1995, Testimony charts the life of jazz legend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker by way of 14 sonnets by Pulitzer prize-winning writer Yusef Komunyakaa, and music by Australian jazz saxophone virtuoso Sandy Evans.
In its stage version, there was a lot more than just music and words to illustrate Parker’s colourful life. A three-storey scaffold, with seven compartments on each level, housed the majority of the Australian Art Orchestra, directed by Paul Grabowsky, with the drums, double basses and piano on the stage. The scaffold also served as a screen for the images, projected on to a translucent white blind, which didn’t always go up and down on cue. With an array of interesting, often powerful visuals running throughout the piece, it was sometimes hard to follow their relationship with the music and accompanying words. But this may have been due to the unpredictable Opera House acoustics.
As well as vocal soloists Kristen Cornwell, Kate Swadling, Dan Barnett, Jackie Orszaczky, Toni Allayiallis, Tanya Sparke, Shelley Scown, Tina Harrod, Joe Lane, Michelle Morgan and Lily Dior to convey the words, there was video narration by Bobby C. For the most part, reverberation and balance anomalies prevented full comprehension of the story being told. A pity, because when this acoustic fog lifted, Bobby C’s delivery of Komunyakaa’s poetry was mesmerising.
The Australian Art Orchestra played with plenty of bop and then some – standouts were Carl Dewhurst on guitar and Paul Cutlan on clarinet. Of the vocal soloists, Sparke’s gut-wrenching Camarillo Pt 2, which ended the first half, was a showstopper. Fine performances also from veteran bebopper Lane and Dior.
The lighting was expressive and set the mood nicely for each piece – with just a few synchronisation glitches spotlighting soloists. But one thing lacking in the overall production was a sense of wardrobe style. For a fully staged performance, the motley dressing of the orchestra was noticeable.
Sandy Evans’s musical score draws together different styles of jazz, working in Parker classics such as Moose the Mooch, Relaxin' at Camarillo and Dewey Square, and showcases her skill as a musical storyteller. The result is a composition of immense depth, humanity and expression.
- The Australian (Hilary Shrubb), 18 January 2002
A True Marriage of Sound and Vision Sees Bird Take Flight
Kicking the ABC may have become the nearest thing we have to a national football code, but that 8¢ a day still goes a long way. Take a bow Christopher Williams of Audio Arts. It was he who originally commissioned this tribute to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker from poet Yusef Komunyakaa and composer Sandy Evans, Parker being the man whose alto saxophone ‘laughing and crying at the same time’ etched bebop into the tomb of the 20th century.
In translating Testimony to the stage, director Nigel Jamieson and designer Dan Potra’s hugely ambitious concept of placing most of the Australian Art Orchestra in a three-tier scaffolding must have monumentally complicated perfecting the sound. The pay-off was the startling visual impact of the structure and its twin screens, on which were projected images and abstract animation. It was a true marriage of sound and vision. If Testimony seemed more or less complete as a radio work, this added another level of immediacy.
Komunyakaa, an acclaimed American poet, wrote 14 sonnets testimonies to Bird. Aptly and imaginatively setting 11 of these (three being spoken by actor Bobby C) as the core of her work largely liberated Evans from the immense hurdle of trying to depict a towering musician in music.
Kristen Cornwall began, teasing Komunyakaa’s evocative lines (“high heels clicking like a hi-hat”) and goaded by a delightful interlude from guitarist Carl Dewhurst. Kate Swadling, Dan Barnett and that inimitable soul survivor, Jackie Orszaczky, followed, the last hauling us through the Old Testament by the heart strings.
Toni Allayialis gave us the low-down on Bird’s love of Latin, and Tanya Sparke haunted us with life at the Camarillo Hospital, after a scarifying account of Parker’s breakdown from Bobby C, violin and jangling orchestra.
The drug and alcohol issues were confronting. Singer Shelley Scown was typically ethereal here, with contrasting tenor saxophone from Julien Wilson.
The moment the Bird really took flight came with the blazing singing of Tina Harrod, robustly supported by trombonist James Greening. The material dealt with the death of Parker’s baby daughter, beginning with Phil Slater’s trumpet weeping against Bobby C’s delivery of the distraught telegrams Parker sent to his wife.
Seeing Joe Lane take the Concert Hall stage was a justification for this endeavour by itself, and the veteran singer’s duet with bassist Philip Rex, leading into Parker’s Moose the Mooche, included some of the night’s most compelling improvising.
A tribute to Parker’s timeless work with string orchestra had an almost gothic element as Michelle Morgan’s supernatural voice coiled with John Rodgers’s violin against snaking graphics on the screen. Finally Lily Dior presided like a pagan priestess over the last rites and, appropriately, Evans delivered the coup de grace with her tenor saxophone.
If something was missing, it was the sort of red-hot alto saxophone Bernie McGann contributed to the original recording.
“Bird Lives” insisted scrawls of graffiti at the show’s conclusion. Hard to argue with.
Testimony closes tonight.
- Sydney Morning Herald (John Shand), 18.01.02
Jazz Opera Poet Jams With the Bird
The late great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker has become something of a talisman for American poet and writer Yusef Komunyakaa. Along with other legends such as Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, the ‘Bird’ provided an inspirational soundtrack for what could have been a difficult childhood: that of a working-class black kid growing up in segregated Louisiana in the 1950s.
And four decades later – after a stint in Vietnam, factory jobs, mature age university study and a distinguished career as a poet – Komunyakaa was working on a piece about Parker when he learned he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.
That evocation of Parker, titled Testimony, was originally commissioned by the ABC as a radio spectacular with original music by Australian jazz composer and performer Sandy Evans. But their joint effort will undergo a reincarnation next week, when it emerges as a live performance piece for the Sydney Festival and, in October, for the 2002 Melbourne Festival.
The piece’s re-imagining, from a 1999 pre-recorded radio special to the 2002 multimedia performance event, did not involve any new work for Komunyakaa. His libretto made the transformation intact. It was director Nigel Jamieson who came on board to turn it into theatre. The production includes a four-storey-high set with platforms for 30 musicians and singers positioned around a screen projecting images of the life and times of Parker.
“But, you know, that’s always what I thought should happen,” says Komunyakaa. “When you think of a libretto, you think of live performance. I wasn’t sure how it could be done. But I think it is the sort of piece that can expand with each new artistic vision.”
Jamieson’s vision sounds like a variation of one of Philip Glass' cross-media transfers; like a reversal of Glass' approach to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie, La Belle et la Bete, which he turned into an opera by adding musicians and singers in front of the screen.
As it happened Jamieson’s wildly innovative shadow puppet drama, The Theft of Sita, was part of last year’s Next Wave Down Under at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Komunyakaa says he knew Testimony was in good hands when he caught a performance of Sita at BAM. And the man who did the music for Sita, Paul Grabowsky, will be wielding the baton with the Australian Art Orchestra for the Testimony performances.
“I tend to trust artists, especially if they’ve been around for a while as they guys have,” he says. *“They gave me some idea of what they had in mind. But the bottom line was that Sandy was involved I really trusted her expertise.” *
Back in the early 1990s, Komunyakaa was not exactly a cold call for Christopher Williams. Williams, an ABC radio producer, originally came up with the idea of producing a radio piece on Charlie Parker. In the 1980s Komunyakaa married an Australian woman and spent two 12-month stints here. During those sojourns he did some readings of his work for the ABC and revealed his passion for jazz.
The relationship, in other words, was there prior to Komunyakaa’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his anthology, Neon Vernacular. Winning the Pulitzer gave the Testimony project added heft. The fact that Komunyakaa subsequently became professor of creative writing at Princeton University in New Jersey, adding scholarly lustre to the proceedings.
Komunyakaa is unable to attend the Sydney performances due to work commitments at Princeton. But he hopes to make it to Melbourne for the performances in October.
“Was I surprised that I was asked to get involved in an Australian project about an American jazz saxophonist who never visited Australia?” he says. *“Not really. Australia takes its jazz very seriously, particularly in Sydney, and there are some very good players there. It wasn’t the fact that they wanted to do it that was surprising, but that they had this very interesting creative vision about how they wanted to do it.
“Contemporary jazz is pretty international and I don’t know that you can pick national origin from the sound any more. Sandy’s work is an exceptional modern jazz composition and the national origin of the composer is not really relevant.” *
Still, there is no denying Parker’s particular American pedigree. He was a man of prodigious talent and appetites who, on the saxophone, galvanised audiences at the end of World War II with a virtuoso approach to jazz. It was called bebop.
Before his death, at the age of 34 from a heroin overdose, he and his contemporaries had changed the face of jazz.
Parker’s legendary status remained intact because he never lost his youthful promise and vigour. The fact that he died of a drug overdose created a fascination about how the rest of his life may have unfolded.
His life has proved irresistible to writers, film makers and, now, serious musicians. Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird, was a loving ode to the high points of his career and didn’t dwell too much on the mess of his personal life.
One of the criticisms of Bird is that it sanitised the heroin addiction that ultimately killed Parker in the New York apartment of his friend, Baroness Nica de Koeenigswarter. Komunyakaa, who certainly has the ability to confront in his verse, doesn’t beat around the bush here, either. As the Baroness puts it in Testimony: *“Yes, they had him with a needle in his arm, dead in my bathroom.” *
The original idea, as Komunyakaa recalls it, was to take a more conventionally operatic approach to the piece. But after doing extensive research, Komunyakaa decided that a structure involving “testimonies” to Parker’s life – a total of 14 each in two verses of 14 lines a piece, as it turned out – was the way to go.
They have titles like *“Boxcars”, “Chicken Shack”, “Black Cockatoo”, “Deep South”, “Cain and Abel”, “Baroness Pannonica”. *
The 14 line sonnet structure seems to be a preferred Komunyakaa format: it’s the prevailing format in the 132 poems of his current anthology, Talking Dirty to the Gods, which also happens to be his 11th collection.
Komunyakaa’s word portraits of Charlie Parker are richly evocative. Parker would “go inside a song with enough irony to break the devil’s heart.” And his playing was so hot that he *“left ash in the bell of his horn.” *
For Komunyakaa, growing up not far from New Orleans’s Basin Street in the 1950s and 1960s, race and jazz were integral to his existence. Jazz happens to be a potent entree into the African American experience of the 20th century. It addresses racism either through songs such as Strange Fruit, the Billie Holiday song about lynching, or the humiliations heaped on its black practitioners in the days of segregation.
It certainly helped shape his own identity and consciousness. As a writer he took his ancestral African family name, a decision which angered his father, a man with a practical approach to getting by as a black man in the Deep South. In one of his more autobiographical verses Komunyakaa wrote: *“My father could only sign his name but he’d look at blueprints and say how many bricks form each wall.” *
Komunyakaa dabbled in writing in his youth. But it was the military in the draft-mandated 1960s that provided the teenager’s ticket out of Bogalusa, Louisiana.
One of Komunyakaa’s first paid writing gigs was as a reporter on a US Army newspaper while stationed in Vietnam. He read poetry between his deadlines. His experience as a reporter was good background for Testimony. Because the libretto is very much a poetic reconstruction of Parker’s life: full of colour and details. As Komunyakaa puts it:* “Little bits of information are important to me.” *
But having done his research, Komunyakaa felt it was important to “pull back from it”.
Since his chosen format was a sequence of reminiscences and recollections by people in Parker’s life, he wanted to also let their perspectives percolate.
“I didn’t want to write straight away,” he says.* “I wanted to put the information aside. I wanted to remember parts and pieces of the story. That’s why I used the title Testimony. I wanted a number of testimonies actually.” *
While Komunyakaa’s two post-Testimony theatre projects involve black characters, including an 18th century slave in a piece titled Slip Knot, he is inclined to emphasise the universality of the themes he addresses.
“I don’t really define myself as a jazz poet either but being born in Louisiana and growing up with the more classical form of the blues and then coming to modern jazz, there was something there,” he says. *“And what I wanted to do with the libretto is create a certain feeling of the time. I had listened to Parker on record but there were so many others that I had listened to as well, like Monk and Gillespie.” *
The ABC’s recording of Testimony has not been released in the US yet. Nor are there any plans to mount the stage version. Komunyakaa hopes the Australian performances will change that. As he says:* “It affects people. Whenever I play the recording for my friends, they seem to get pretty swept up in it.” *
Testimony is at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on January 16 and 18, 8pm.
(Philip McCarthy), 9 January 2002
Tribute to a Genius
What an extraordinary performance. The Festival Centre celebrated its 30th anniversary with a show which truly belongs on the world stage. Merging hi-tech video projection and animation with solid sets, live music and singing, pre-recorded narration and soundbites, Testimony pays tribute to the musical genius and tragic demise of jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker in breathtaking original aural and visual style.
Most astonishing was how this fusion of technology and musicianship must have been timed to the last second, yet always kept the spontaneous, improvised feel essential to the spirit of jazz.
Under the direction of Nigel Jamieson, it just seemed to come together like magic. A giant, semi-transparent film screen depicting a New York tenement dropped to reveal 15 members of the Australian Art Orchestra sitting, silhouetted in a three-tier scaffold of the building’s framework. From there, individuals made their way up and down a fire escape to solo on the “rooftop”.
Front of stage, Paul Grabowsky spent the night with his back to the audience, either frenetically leading his quartet on piano or conducting with equally expressive energy.
Composer Sandy Evans has seamlessly melded Parker’s tunes and poet Yusef Komunyakka’s 14 sonnets about Parker’s life into her own sweeping landscape of jazz styles.
The screen rose again to project actor Bobby C narrating the Bird story from a personal perspective, while individual players were illuminated in windows. Projected images – alternating between screens in front of and behind the orchestra – became stars in their own right. Cityscapes gave way to New York cabs, spinning record labels and rolling railway tracks for the clickety-clack rhythm of A Day Like Today, with wonderful vocal scats by Dan Barnett. At other times, the screens became a kaleidoscope of coloured geometric patterns for Lily Dior’s feisty Cuban-flavoured Black Cockatoo or echoed Michele Morgan’s abstract, almost operatic vocal gymnastics on A Soft Touch for Strings, with intertwining squiggles.
However, the show stealer was Tina Harrod’s sultry, Southern Abel and Cain, with its full-bodied gospel backing vocals.
The second half followed Parker’s path of self-destruction, from drug abuse in Addie’s Boy to the forlorn trumpet bursts which punctuate Parker’s telegram to his wife following the death of their daughter.
Less successful was wheelchair-bound veteran Joe Lane’s spoken introduction to Moose the Mooche, although his scatting duet with double bass more than compensated.
Like the spirit of Bird himself, Testimony left the audience soaring the musical heavens.
- The Advertiser (Patrick McDonald), 10 June 2003