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Various Artists: The Passion of Charlie Parker (Impulse!)

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Cover of vocal tribute album to Charlie Parker
Cover of “The Passion of Charlie Parker” album

It is impossible to fully appreciate great art in one sitting. Repeat exposure, no matter how frequent, reveals new layers, fresh insights and previously missed nuances. The Passion of Charlie Parker is such a masterwork. It’s tempting to call this brilliantly realized tribute a vocal album. It does feature a remarkable assortment of singers, including Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Luciana Souza, Kandace Springs, emerging French chanteuse Camille Bertault, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan and, intriguingly, actor Jeffrey Wright. But Passion is, like Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters and Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS, so much more.

The brainchild of producer Larry Klein, Passion is constructed upon a foundation of 10 Parker compositions, each fitted with lyrics, most written by David Baerwald. The full program, including two interludes, paints a richly hued, warts-and-all biographical portrait. Bird’s progress from neophyte to legend is mapped alongside the vocalists by seven stellar players: guitarist Ben Monder, keyboardist Craig Taborn, drummer Eric Harland (with Mark Guiliana subbing on one track), alternating bassists Scott Colley and Larry Grenadier and, in the catbird seat, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin.

From Peyroux’s buoyant opener, “Meet Charlie Parker” (“Ornithology”), to Bertault’s closing paean, “Apres Vous” (“Au Privave”), the vocal passages are relatively brief, advancing the story while leaving plenty of space for the bandmates to gloriously exercise their bop (and other) muscles. “The Epitaph of Charlie Parker” (“Visa”), anchored by Hannigan, is perhaps best indicative of how superbly crafted these pieces are. It opens with a peppy vocal chorus suggesting the swing influences of Parker’s youth, continues into a chaotic instrumental section that abstractly sketches the search for his sound, and then returns to the chorus in vehement bebop style.

The dense “Los Angeles,” with Elling, takes a sinister slither through Tinseltown, ominously tracing the abetment of Parker’s heroin addiction by drug dealer Emry “Moose the Mooche” Byrd. The most straight-ahead track features Porter, a lithe “Yardbird Suite” with Parker’s original lyrics. His common-law wife, Chan, is channeled thrice, in Peyroux’s opener, the idolatrous “Live My Love for You” (“Little Suede Shoes”) with Springs and, celebrating Bird’s ascension, Gardot’s “The King of 52nd Street” (“Scrapple From the Apple”). The Souza-propelled “Every Little Thing” (“Bloomdido”) suggests the open-handed generosity of Parker’s celebrated benefactor, Pannonica (“Nica”) de Koenigswarter. As for Wright, the vocal wildcard, he proves superb cast as Parker, talk-singing “So Long” (“K.C. Blues”), literally a fuck-you to Kansas City as Bird maps his migration to New York, and the desperate-for-a-fix “Fifty Dollars” (“Segment”).

Preview, buy or download songs from the album The Passion of Charlie Parker on iTunes.

Read Shaun Brady’s article on the Charlie Parker opera.

Originally Published