YARDBIRD | London, Hackney Empire

This ninety-minute jazz fusion chamber opera offers a moving insight into Bebop genius Charlie Parker (Lawrence Brownlee), his wounded family life and unfulfilled ambitions. Though his body lies recently dead, Parker’s spirit yearns to write a full, orchestral work (as he did while alive) but scenes from Parker’s life start to pop up and interrupt him, overlapping anachronistically.

The climax hits you as a surprise: while his mother and three wives argue over where to bury Parker’s body in high, overlapping lines, Dizzy Gillespie (Will Liverman) steps forward with a deep and sonorous eulogy to the enduring gift of Yardbird’s music.

It is a bold choice to present the iconic saxophonist’s life with almost no saxophone, but Daniel Schnyder’s rich score offers expressive vocal lines, including scat singing and quotes from Yardbird’s recordings. Brownlee’s soaring, effortless tenor guides us through Parker’s life, but it is arguably the supporting female cast that steals the show (including Angela Brown and Rachel Sterrenberg).

It is impossible not to compare this new opera with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the original jazz fusion opera for an all African-American cast. Though this new work is sung-through and smaller scale, it lacks the personal style and tunefulness it so unashamedly borrows from. Nonetheless, this highly accessible work offers an engaging and melancholy study of Parker’s life and legacy.

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