Testimony | Book and CD review by Phil Sandford

Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker

Testimony: A Tribute To Charlie Parker
With New and Selected Jazz Poems
Yusef Komunyakaa; Sandy Evans, contrib.; Christopher Williams, contrib.; Miriam Zolin, contrib.; Sascha Feinstein, fwd.
140 pages plus two CDs
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7429-9
Wesleyan University Press, 2013

Review by Phil Sandford

9780819574299Sandy Evans and Yusef Komunyakaa have combined to produce a profound tribute to Charlie Parker, one of the most influential figures in jazz.

Testimony consists of fourteen poems by Komunyakaa that have been set to music by Evans. It is contained within a book that includes other jazz poems, commentary and two CDs of the score.

The Testimony libretto deals both with some significant times in Parker’s life (his early childhood, his first experiences of New York, the death of his daughter, his six months in Camarillo state mental hospital, his funeral) and aspects of his music. They reflect Komunyakaa’s deep love of jazz and his empathy for Parker’s life and music, without euologising them.

Evans’ approach in the score varies from poem to poem. Sometimes they are sung – with eleven different singers, eight of them female – and sometimes they are spoken by Michael Edward-Stevens. She uses different instrumental combinations, from a duo to an eleven-piece band, and a wide range of styles, ranging from bop to soul, from Latin to contemporary classical music.

The vocalists bring an enormous depth and range to the musical score and include Jackie Orszaczky and Tina Harrod in great form on ‘Cain and Abel’, Michelle Morgan revealing an incredible range on ‘A Soft Touch for Strings’ and Tanya Sparke’s haunting opening to ‘Camarillo Part 2’.

Among the many compositional highlights are the beautiful ‘Purple Dress’, with a chordal solo from Jeremy Sawkins and a strong Evans solo; the Latin ‘Black Cockatoo’, a tribute to Parker’s work with the Cuban percussionist Machito and featuring a fine solo by Paul Cutlan; and the warmth of ‘Adie’s Boy’, showcasing the inimitable Bernie McGann.

Other notable soloists include bop great Chuck Yates on ‘If I Had You’, a wonderful Laurence Hobgood blues solo on ‘A Day Like Today’, James Greening’s soulful solo on ‘Pree’s Funeral Song’ and Alister Spence’s dramatic free solo on ‘Camarillo Part 1’.

There are two straight-ahead bop tracks, ‘Ko Ko’ and ‘Moose the Mooche’ with crackling solos from Warwick Alder, Joe Lane, Yates and McGann.

Sandy-and-Yusef-at-Wesleyan_Sep2013Parker stands as a giant of modern jazz: his blazing solo on ‘Ko-Ko’, the passion of ‘Parker’s Mood’, the melodic flow of ‘Embraceable You’, the break into ‘Night in Tunisia’, the stream of ideas tumbling out of his horn, the compositions that are an essential part of the jazz repetoire. He worked within the framework of defined structures, primarily the blues and 32-bar standards, but stretched those forms harmonically, rhythmically and melodically in ways never heard before to develop a new language in jazz.

Komunyakaa and Evans also work within a structure: two fourteen-line sonnets. In various forms the sonnet has a great history in literature, from Shakespeare to verse novels like Pushkin’s Eugene Onigen and Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate. In jazz, Duke Ellington composed four pieces in sonnet form for his tribute to Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder. However, like Parker, Komunyakaa and Evans stretch and develop their chosen form to the extent that it is barely recognizable and achieve a musical and poetic picture of great subtlety and power.

Aside from Testimony libretto, Komunyakaa has included 28 new and selected jazz poems, some referring to jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus (‘Art & life bleed/into each other/as he works the bow’), Duke Ellington (‘Duke knew how to listen/to colors’) and Eric Dolphy (‘Eric Dolphy/scored the firmament splitting/ to bedrock, as the word spoke/tongues we tried to answer’).

The book also includes perceptive essays by Sascha Feinstein, Miriam Zolin, Paul Grabowsky and Evans; an interview with Komunyakaa; and an interesting discussion between Evans and Christopher Williams about how she approached writing the score.

The use of poetry and narration in jazz has a somewhat mixed history, but Evans’ bold vision has allowed her to remain faithful to Komunyakaa’s poems and to Parker’s spirit, while doing so firmly with her own voice. Her finely-crafted composition has given the vocalists and soloists excellent vehicles within which they can pay their individual tributes to Parker, perhaps best summed up in the memorable ‘Testimony Coda’, with Bernie McGann’s last notes floating gently in the air.


Sandy Evans on the web www.sandyevans.com.au

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