Book review (includes CD): Testimony – A Tribute to Charlie Parker (review by John Shand)

Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker

Testimony – A Tribute to Charlie Parker
Yusef Komunyakaa/Sandy Evans
Wesleyan University Press, 2013

Review by John Shand

9780819574299Yusef Komunyakaa got Bird. He got that to render him in poetry could never be a drab matter of linear narrative, but of looking at him through a kaleidoscope of perceptions and a prism for refracting sound. He got that one voice would not do the job, just as one perspective was not enough for the Cubists to excavate a subject. Komunyakaa needed the voice doing the talking to continually shift, like so many key changes. He needed the poems to be jittery and then be Buddha-calm; to turn somersaults with the exultation of playing and to be weighed by a fog of depression and addiction. But he needed these things to come not as neat sequences, but as jumbled, conflicting, contrasting, complementing feelings, so as to convey the man who ‘played laughter and crying/at the same time’.

Testimony is both a book of poetry and two CDs of music. The book contains a collection of Komunyakaa’s poems, including the 14-part work of the title, a tribute to Charlie Parker. This was originally commissioned by the ABC’s Christopher Williams for a radio special, Komunyakaa being resident in Australia at the time. Williams also commissioned Sandy Evans to create musical settings for the poems. The resultant work (as captured on these CDs) was recorded in 1999, and three years later it became a performance piece as part of the 2002 Sydney Festival, with the creative team for the elaborate staging led by Nigel Jamieson.

Yusef Komunyakaa | image supplied
Yusef Komunyakaa | image supplied

Blazing from the poetry is Komunyakaa’s use of colour – an amazingly direct way to reference and evoke Parker’s playing. Like an expert gardener, Komunyakaa can also dig around the roots of Parker’s art. Take this, from the first stanza of Part III:

Purple dress. Midnight blue
Dime-store floral print
blouse draped over Bottecellian
pose. Tangerine. He could blow
insinuation. A train whistle
in the distance, gun shot
through the ceiling, a wood warbler
back in the Ozarks at Lake
Taneycomo, he’d harmonize
them all.

Sandy Evans | image by Karen Steains
Sandy Evans | image by Karen Steains

Komunyakaa also gave Evans much diversity to work with rhythmically, from pools of long-vowelled serenity to bucking, jostling consonants that point to the velocity of the speed-of-light bebop that Bird patented.

Evans faced a major decision in approaching this work: whether to cast it in Parker’s own musical language, or simply respond to the poems regardless of idiom. Thankfully she chose the latter path: a suite of neo-bop tunes would have been a lame tribute to a musical revolutionary. Nonetheless, to ensure the music still carries Parker’s stamp Evans has used five of his bebop compositions in various ways. Then, cued by Komunyakaa’s use of multiple voices, Evans assembled discrete bands for each piece, including no less than 11 different lead singers, plus Michael Edwards-Stevens reading some poems as spoken word with musical accompaniment.

So the spirit of Bird conjured by the words becomes the resultant work’s main source of cohesion, with the actual music spreading into many stylistic vessels. Among the upshots is a variation in the effectiveness as well as in mood and idiom.

Two of the most successful pieces come back to back. ‘A Day Like Today’ features the supremely jazzy intuition of singer Kurt Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood (who happened to be in the country at the time), ably assisted by bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Hamish Stuart. Then, in a delightful contrast, we steam straight into the gospel/soul cosmos of ‘Abel and Cain’, with the late Jackie Orszaczky’s voice is at its most urgent and arresting. He is supported by Dave Brewer’s bluesy acoustic guitar, Lloyd Swanton’s bass and Stuart’s minimalist percussion, with Tina Harrod’s sharing in a compelling vocal dialogue. Several pieces where Edward-Stevens delivers the poems with more atmospheric settings, like ‘Camarillo Part 1’ and the ‘telegraph’ sections of the devastating ‘Pree’s Funeral Song’ also work superbly.

But sometimes the nature of the words and the music are at odds, or Evans has opted for song forms, where something through-composed could have risen and fallen more readily with the intensity of the words. The appropriately tranquillised mood of ‘Camarillo Part 2’ (sung by Tanya Sparke), for instance, could have given way to something more frenzied for the lines ‘Saturday nights he’d blow/his C-melody sax so hard/he’d gaze into the eyes of the other patients/to face a naked mirror again.’ ‘Addie’s Boy’ is another example, although it is redeemed by Bernie McGann’s leaping alto cries.

Contrast these with the perfect words/music marriage of Joe Lane’s wonderfully unruly interpretation of ‘Barrow Street’ against Zwartz’s bass, and the mostly thrilling sonic adventure that is ‘A Soft Touch For Strings’, sung by Michelle Morgan in a dialogue with violinist John Rodgers, bassist Steve Elphick and drummer Simon Barker.

Assorted interviews and commentaries complete this brilliant collection of jazz-infused poetry and its accompanying intermittent jewels of Australian jazz.


Read Phil Sandford’s review of Testimony here >

Sandy Evans’ website

Purchase Testimony on (find out how you’ll support us by doing this)
Testimony, A Tribute to Charlie Parker: With New and Selected Jazz Poems (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

John Shand blogs. Read more from him on Music and Other Spheres