Musicians and actors combine to pay tribute to Charlie Parker, in a project conceived in 2015, following the 60th anniversary of Bird’s death. The result is this musical play with lyrics by songwriter David Baerwald. There is passion here, whether it’s in Baerwald’s words, which encapsulate Parker’s style in a way that might have seemed impossible, or the expressive creativity and dynamism of all the musicians. Producer Larry Klein tries to bring a sense of what Parker might have done if he’d been working today.
Perhaps Bird would have gone a different way, but these versions are as good as many reinterpretations of the illusive great man, so many years after his death.
The Passion of Charlie Parker is one of those albums – rare now – which needs to be listened to in track order. Shuffle doesn’t work as it tells the story of the great man and engages with his music. It begins with Meet Charlie Parker, where Madeleine Peyroux puts vocals on Ornithology. The Epitaph of Charlie Parker (The Funeral) is a vocal version of Visa, featuring the vocals of Barbara Hannigan, who plays the part of Parker’s last wife.
Yardbird Suide (A Genius in His Youth) is sung by the ubiquitous Gregory Porter, who shows his bop chops but perhaps provides a path to Parker’s music for those less enamoured of the innovative and sometimes inaccessible great man.
So Long (Exodus to New York City) is a vocal version of KC Blues and the vocals of actor Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) meld with the sax before becoming the spoken world. This is where the music and the spoken word really meld and begin to show more of the turbulence of Parker’s life.
Bloomdido is one of Parker’s lesser known tracks and it’s reinvented here as Every Little Thing (The Song of the Acolyte) with vocals by Luciana Souza.
Playing sax on this album was always going to be a tough gig, but it’s a challenge that Donny McAslin meets beautifully, not least on the brief interludes of Central Avenue (A Dark Journey to Los Angeles) and, later, Salle Pleyel (The Journey to Paris). Alongside the other musicians, including drummers Mark Guiliana and Eric Harland, guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Craig Taborn, bassists Scott Colley and Larry Grenadier, the whole album allows today’s musicians to add their own take on Parker’s legacy.
Moose the Mooche is modernised and vocalised by Kurt Elling in Los Angeles (The Dealer’s Song), retaining the original verve and cool. Just as Elling and the other vocalists interpret Bird, so Kandace Springs brings the personal home with Live My Love For You (Chan’s Love Song), based on My Little Suede Shoes.
A darker moment follows, with Fifty Dollars (Angels and Demons), a vocal version of Segment with Jeffrey Wright once more, before Melody Gardot sings the utterly Bird-like Scrapple from the Apple in The King of 52nd Street (Chan’s Declaration).
It’s only fitting that the final track features the sensational Camille Bertault on Apres Vous (The Apotheosis of Charlie Parker), a vocal version of Au Privave. Since her rise to internet fame in 2015, Bertault has mixed the old with the new, scat singing Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Snarky Puppy’s Lingus. She sits well alongside the more established singers on this album in mixing the old with the new to recreate some of Parker’s Passion.