Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bird Lives, but Without All That Jazz, 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' Opera Only Somewhat Soars -- Chicago Opera / Jazz Review

Opera / Jazz Review

Charlie Parker's Yardbird
an opera by Lyric Unlimited
followed by a performance by
The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic
Harris Theater, Chicago
Friday, March 24, 2017
(Also, Sunday, March 26)
@@@1/2 (rating for opera only)

Even as an only mildly-cultivated jazz lover, the name Charlie Parker is eminently hallowed.

Although in terms of legendary saxophone players, I'm more inclined to listen to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon--and recently learned of Hank Mobley and bought his excellent Soul Station album--I have nothing but the utmost appreciation for "Bird" (a nickname shortened from another, "Yardbird") and how he revolutionized jazz and helped create bebop.

So when I heard about a show called Charlie Parker's Yardbird some time ago, I instantly took note.

Though it was only a few days before attending that I actually read much about it, realized that although presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago--under their Lyric Unlimited banner--it was taking place at the Harris Theater, and bought myself a ticket.

With music by Daniel Schnyder and libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly, Charlie Parker's Yardbird was first produced at Opera Philadelphia and subsequently in New York City and Madison, WI, before a 2-performance run in Chicago.

And rather than loosely interpreting "opera" with a score heavily reflecting the type of jazz made by Parker--who died in 1955 at just age 34--the 90-minute work is sung in traditional opera style.

Certainly, the vocal caliber of Lawrence Brownlee as Parker--and those of Angela Brown (as his mom, Addie), Rachel Sterrenberg (as one of his wives, Chan), Will Liverman (as Bird's famed collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie, Julie Miller (as his patron & friend Baroness Nica, in whose residence he died) and others--sounded impressive to me.

With an attractive backdrop (by set designer Riccardo Hernandez) spelling out BIRDLAND, its letters filled with images of other jazz icons, I had no reason to discern that the opera as written--and as directed by Ron Daniels--was not performed exceptionally well.

I enjoyed it at face value, and especially as it was followed by a terrific performance by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic of works recorded and popularized by Charlie Parker, I was glad to have snagged a relatively inexpensive ticket.

But while I liked Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I didn't love it. And though this would keep with my usual stipulation about opera--that I don't feel it like I do rock 'n roll, Broadway or even great jazz--here I felt the biographical narrative about Parker was just far too sketchy.

Scenes segued in a way that those coming to this show without prior familiarity could really be confused about just who Chan, Nica and others were--and what they meant to Bird.

And while we saw Charlie together with Dizzy, and struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, no real insights were provided about Bird's jazz innovations, or the underpinings of the heroin addiction that would lead to his premature passing.

But most, or simplest, of all, there just wasn't enough jazz in this show for my tastes.

Yes, the score by the Swiss-American Schnyder wove in traces of bebop, but they were never front and center (or ever performed by anyone onstage).

I don't know if rights clearance issues dictated some of the musical decisions, but rather than being the jazz opera I had hoped, this was a straightforward--if short and English-sung--classical music opera that happens to be about a jazz legend.

I have absolutely no issue with modern yet stylistically traditional operas about unique subjects. Just last month, I loved Chicago Opera Theater's The Invention of Morel, composed by Stewart Copeland of The Police, and Lyric's 2015 The Passenger, regarding the Holocaust, was one of the best things I've ever seen there.

Other reviews I've seen of Charlie Parker's Yardbird--of this production and past ones--seem qualitatively aligned with mine, which is more positive than not, even if not a rave.

So it isn't that I'm downgrading this opera simply for not hewing closer to my desires. But yes, I would have enjoyed far more (pronounced) jazz and some deeper insights into what made Bird chirp.

As it stands--and this review is moot for most reading it as the Chicago run is done, though future stagings are likely around the country and world--the subject was sufficient to pull me in and generally keep me interested.

And the performers were excellent.

...including, quite notably, in the brief post-opera concert, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic saxophonist Rajim Halim Orozco, trumpeter Chris Davis, pianist Darwin Noguera, drummer Clif Wallace and bassist Junius Paul.

But with much due respect to those in and involved with Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I think I honestly would have better enjoyed 90 more minutes of live Bird-bred jazz from the CJP.

And simply watching/hearing this Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie clip on YouTube (and others like it), while reading the Wikipedia entry on Parker, probably provides a clearer understanding as to why--62 years after the legend's death--jazz aficionados still like to enthuse:

"Bird Lives!"

No comments: