Tuesday, March 28, 2017



by Dwight Casimere

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee as the tormented musical legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

CHICAGO--When Charles "Charlie, Yardbird" Parker, Jr. died at a mere 34 years of age  on March 12, 1955 in the Fifth Avenue co-op apartment of Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter of a drug overdose, complicated by heart failure, pulmonary pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver, shock waves rippled through the international jazz community. "The Bird" had flown, leaving behind a musical legacy that would both confound and entrance musicians and music lovers for decades to come and change forever both the face and perception of the music known as modern jazz.

'Bird' as he was affectionately known, led a short, but complicated life. First, there was the heroin addiction, brought on in his tender teen years by an auto accident that left him dependent on pain-killing morphine that morphed into heroin addiction, a readily available opiate on the jazz scene . When heroin wasn't available, Bird turned to alcohol, which impaired his judgement and led to erratic behavior that included infidelity, abandonment of his only surviving child, drunken run-ins with the law and eventual incarceration in a mental health facility.

 Strong meat for any biographical treatment and certainly unwieldy subject matter for a chamber opera of a scant 90 minutes long. But, Lyric Unlimited, the Broadway musical and modern opera arm of Lyric Opera Chicago, rose to the challenge and presented a searing. if at times, uneven,  local premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird by classical/jazz saxophonist and composer, the Swiss American Daniel Schnyder (Song For My Grandfather, Beep-Hop, Blues for Schubert) and poet-playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly (the award-winning poem Fire Walker and the play Saint Lucy's Eyes, a treatise on illegal abortion, poverty and forgiveness).  The work was presented off-site from Lyric's normal venue at the Civic Opera House, and was instead performed on the stage of the  Harris Theater in Millennium Park.

The Chicago Premiere featured much of the original cast, including opera superstar Lawrence Brownlee, singing a role tailor-made for him by the composer, the original Stage Director, Ron Daniels, Lyric Ryan Center alumnus Will Liverman as Dizzy  (John Birks) Gillespie, Parker's mentor and bandleader in New York's storied 52nd Street  and Harlem's Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. The mesmerizing Angela Brown as his self-sacrificing mother Addie, the luminous Rachel Sterrenberg as Parker's bohemian common-law wife, Chan,  Ryan Opera Center alumna Julie Miller as Parker's star-crossed patron Baroness Nica and Angela Mortellaro as his neglected first legal wife Doris (whom he never divorced) and subsequent liaison and abandoned partner Rebecca,  round out the stellar cast. There was a sublime moment near the end of the opera when Brownlee's Parker reached an epiphanal moment, invoking the words of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar ("I know why the caged bird sings...") before resurging into the hereafter. It is a powerful moment that grounds and otherwise fragmented story line.

There is much to like in this production of Yardbird in spite of its flaws. Exceptional stagecraft by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, and lighting designer Scott Zielinski, employ video panels and  lighting to evoke the layered, noir milieu of Harlem in the 1940s. Images of  the era's jazz legends appear on the video panels that spell out "Birdland," indelibly cementing the drama in its time period. Brownlee's rich, multi-textured bel canto voice soared through the composer's complex vocal runs into a falsetto range that would have dashed many a tenor to terra firma from the score's searingly high reaches. Brownlee navigated the treacherous path with ease, like an experienced pilot soaring to cruising altitude in the stratosphere. Composer Schnyder wisely avoided the trap of sounding cliched by incorporating too much of Parker's explosive musical complexity's,  instead incorporating bits and pieces of familiar riffs into a  tapestry of jazz, blues, gospel and scat. I  believe the correct modern musical term would be 'sampling,' now a common and recognized practice. At times, the recitative drug things along, as it does in many operas that employ this story-vamping technique, but the superb singing and spirited conducting by Kelly Kuo of the 16 piece orchestra ensemble in the pit quickly brought things to life. (A scheduling conflict due to the Lyric's regular performances at the Civic Opera House precluded the use of Lyric Opera Orchestra members in this production. But the pros on hand did a yeoman's job.)

Most audience members who came out for the pair of weekend performances at the Harris were probably already filled-in on at least the basics of Parker's brief, but multi-faceted life, filled and its simultaneous triumph and tragedy. The authors chose to give only a free-handed sketch of the artist's life, told from the standpoint of Parker, appearing onstage initially, as a rain-drenched apparition, then  shedding his raincoat to reveal a dashing period suit with his signature horn, singing and scatting with swagger to match. It's an epic performance that truly deserved more than its brief two-day run.

The work had its world premiere in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia and was subsequently premiered the following year in New York at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, and at Madison Opera, Wisconsin. The production will have its London Premiere in June at the celebrated English National Opera, for five performances June 9-17. If you missed the Chicago run, you might want to work this engagement of "Yardbird" into your summer vacation plans.

 'bird serenades his namesakes in the chamber opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird
Photo: Dominic M.  Mercier/Opera Philadelphia
 Diz with his crew backstage at Town Hall in 1947 with trumpeter Tadd Dameron, pianist Hank Jones and vocalist Mary Lou Williams with Milt Orent, who co-composed with Williams the jazz classic "In The Land of Oo-Bla-Bee"
 Dis with his band in 1947, with Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker and Cecil Payne on saxes. John Lewis on piano, Max Roach on drums and Ray Bryant on bass
 Charlie Parker on sax (l) with Miles Davis (c) at the Three Deuces in 1945
 "Diz" (r) looks on dreamily as Ella Fitzgerald (c) scats with her then-husband Ray Brown on bass (rear) in 1947
 The townhouse in the East Village across from Tompkins Square Park where Bird lived with his wife  Chan
 Dizzy warming up for a concert in Town Hall in 1955. He got the idea for his crooked horn when his original was damaged at a night club party for his wife Lorraine. He liked the sound from the bell bent at a 45 degree angle, so he had his subsequent trumpets made with the defect, which became his trademark
Charlie Parker's gravestone at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit, Missouri, a pilgrimage site for many Parker devotees

Monday, March 20, 2017


by Dwight Casimere

There was a marvelous film shown at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival called The Birth of Sake, which depicted production of the national beverage of Japan and its 2,000 year old tradition, through the eyes of 28 year old Yasuyuki Yishida, the sixth-generation heir to his family's 144 year old Sake brewery in a tiny prefecture in a remote part of northern Japan. The film shows the dedication of Yachan, as he is affectionately called, and his team as they spend six arduous months in Japan's harsh winter, polishing the rice by hand and nursing the liquid to maturity as premium sake. There are no shortcuts to making fine sake, and the work at every step of the way is back-breaking to say the least. When Yachan isn't at the brewery, he's on the road for the rest of the year, promoting his premium sake at wine fairs, food and wine trade shows and almost any other venue where people are willing to listen to his spiel on the rewards of drinking premium sake. The film gave me a new appreciation for sake, which is really a type of wine, although, rather than being fermented in the barrel or in steel tanks like regular wine, the polished rice is made through a brewing process that is more like that used in making beer. Premium sakes can run well into double digits, but, thankfully, there's a new alternative on the market that makes the experience affordable. 

 Ty Ku Sake Silver is a premium sake that offers all of the quality and flavor of the more expensive labels at an affordable price. At just $19, its a real head-turner, and likely to change everything you've thought about sake. First of all, forget the traditional method of serving sake warm in an earthenware of porcelain vessel. Ty Ku is meant to be served chilled, just a like a fine still wine, and its also great as an ingredient in flavorful cocktails. The sake has a naturally fruit-tinged flavor that is crisp, slightly sweet, and redolent of the flavors of ripe pears or a crisp green apple. One of the ways I like to have it is as a Martini, with a slice of fresh ginger, a shot of vodka and a splash of pear nectar shaken with or served over crushed ice. Another variation is as a cocktail with pureed pear, Asian pear or apple, with a dash of lemon juice and poured over ice with a garnish of fresh mint. Ty Ku works terrifically with sushi or other seafood. It's also a surprisingly delicious pairing with grilled fish, chicken or even a grilled steak or veal chop. Try a side of diced potatoes and shaved radishes with a light lemon and tarragon vinaigrette for a real taste treat that's perfect for spring.

 The Birth of Sake World Premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Wine of the Week: Chateau Cambon La Pelouse Haut-Medoc-$17.99

by Dwight Casimere

Imagine a Bordeaux from the Haut Medoc on Bordeaux's coveted Left Bank for under $20 that reflects all of the skill and laborious work in the vineyards and much of the complexity, roundness and fruity aromas  and the allure of wines costing far more and you have the essential components and drawing cards to Chateau Cambon La Pelouse Haut Medoc 2012. A steal at a mere $17.99, this is a wine worthy of your best dry aged Porterhouse, cooked over hot coals,laced with chunks of hickory or, even better, apple or cherry wood and a few branches of fresh thyme or rosemary thrown on for aromatic good measure. Add a touch of crushed garlic, a dab of butter or a slab of fresh gorgonzola to melt down into the sizzling meat as it rests off the grill. While the coals are ebbing, grill a couple of spears of romaine brushed with garlic and lemon infused olive oil or pair it with a nice arugula and walnut salad drizzled with balsamic and you have a match made in heaven. This is a 'late harvest' in a sense, with hot, dry weather in late August and early September ameliorating the effects of an extremely wet spring. By all estimates 2012 was considered a good vintage year that produced balanced wine from very ripe fruit. Indeed, this wine has nicely rounded tannins and a great deal of elegance. For such a moderately priced Bordeax, it has garnered a lot of attention, winning numerous awards and being consistently rated in the mid 90s by every major wine publication and an 89-90 by the esteemed Robert Parker. 

The grapes were harvested by hand at the peak of ripeness, then fermented in temperature controlled tanks before aging in barriques for at least a year in a combination of old and new oak. Barrels were hand selected from 8 coopers and aging was performed on the fine lees. Tangential filtration was used by consulting oenologists Claude Gros and Hubert de Bouard for the final grace note. The tasting notes from wine experts are all glowing. Just one sip and you'll see why. There was a total production of 180,000 bottles. I' m sure its available at your local fine wine purveyor. If you locate it, buy a case or two. At this price, you can't go wrong. 

Friday, March 17, 2017


by Dwight Casimere

 Champagne Louis Roederer President and CEO Frederic Rouzaud (l) with Dwight Casimere at The Palms Hotel and Spa in South Beach, Miami Beach
Champagne Louis Roederer Brut Premier

MIAMI BEACH--Champagne Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($49.95) is a shining example of why people who love French Champagne, do so because of its distinct flavor, power and elegance. Roederer Brut Premier has all three qualities in abundance. Family owned since 1776, The sparkling wine is proof positive of the family motto that 'good wine takes time." This Pinot-dominated wine is a perfect example of how 'terrtor', that elusive term that refers to the specific time and place of a wine's production, influences the final outcome. According to Champagne Louis Roederer Group President and CEO Frederic Rouzaud,  the story of the champagne starts in the vineyards. "It starts in the vineyards," he told a Wine Spectator Seminar presented by Bank of America at the recent South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach. "The wine is the product of a specific terroir, composed of chalk soil anthat d a specific climate with a continental influence. It starts with a specific history and a sophistication of the grapes. This is an example of a winery that is coming back to its roots. There are no chemicals used in the making of Champagne Roederer. No pesticides. It is biodynamically produced. In this way, we are bringing people back into the winemaking process to produce a champagne that is pure and honest an true to its roots." The result is a champagne that is intense, but elegant, with persistent bubbles and a taste that is rich and balanced with flavors of ripe lemons, the aroma of white flowers and the underlying taste of white minerals and chalk that is so distinctly Champagne. A hint of raspberry and honey shines through, giving it that satisfying round flavor that only a good champagne can give. This is the real deal, and the one you want to have on hand to welcome the first flowers of spring. 

 Students from Florida International University Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management act as volunteer Sommeliers for the Wine Spectator Wine Seminars

The Champagne Roederer Seminar with Alison Napjus, Senior Editor and Tasting Director, Wine Spectator (l) with Frederic Rouzaud, President and CEO Champagne Luis Roederer Group