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Intermission, By Owen Martell
This fine if elusive novel about a jazz giant echoes his art in both its style and its story-telling
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 18 January 2013
A novelist who dares to write about a great musician risks false notes and jarring discords all the way. Approach a real figure head-on and you court the kitsch and bathos of the biopic; make up your own maestro and, unless you can lay claim to the mantle of Thomas Mann in Doktor Faustus, the imaginary genius will struggle to find a voice.
In a novel as oblique, elusive but quietly hypnotic as its hero's own playing, Owen Martell takes a third way. Martell, who has written two novels in Welsh before this, his first in English, chooses a passage from the life of a jazz giant – post-bop pianist Bill Evans. Then he slants and shades the story away from headline events, much as Evans at the keyboard might leave the original melody to haunt his gorgeous variations like a ghost. From Intermission, you would never know that the creative alchemy of Evans and Miles Davis had, two years prior to its narrative, yielded the one album that even the jazz-averse listener knows and maybe loves: Kind of Blue.
By summer 1961, Evans – raised in New Jersey by a Russian mother and Welsh father, both of whose musical traditions echo through this novel – had broken out of cult status in the basement clubs of Greenwich Village and into wider fame. "Coming to the top of his game", but already dependent on the heroin that would blight his later life, he then lost a crucially talented member of his trio – bass player Scott LaFaro – to a road accident.
After this blow, Evans vanished, returning to New York in October to perform. Around this "intermission" of shock, grief and slow recovery, as the stricken pianist retreats to his parents' home in a heat-hammered Florida, Martell gathers a family quartet who reflect on their own experiences. We meet in successive movements his anxious, academic brother Harry Junior, who trails his brother as he sneaks up to Harlem to score; fervent, introspective mother Mary, who passed on to Bill both Stravinsky and the modal grandeur of the Orthodox liturgy, and rumbustious but guilt-laden father Harry, the Welsh bar-room belter. In a brief coda, the pianist himself sits at the keys again.
So, rather than address Bill's revolutionary style directly, Martell relays it through the broken, choppy and veiled motifs of family life and its secrets. Pure jazz buffs might find too little overt music in this mix; attentive readers will grasp that this domestic suite in its entirety pays homage to Evans's art of elliptical refinement.
Through discontinuous moods, modes and moments – Mary greeting the prismatic colours of a Florida dawn as "a canvas that remade itself in perfection"; Harry recalling his ad hoc choir's tipsy serenades as proof of "a direct link between tonality and happiness" – we both get to know the family and, indirectly, touch the roots of Bill's own gift. When Harry, the ever-hopeful, ever-thwarted immigrant who ran a golf range, listens to his son's discursive "licks and loops", he hears the vagrant notes as "the playing out of his own enigma".
Like Evans's own music, Intermission might prove simply too rarefied and intangible for some tastes; too disdainful of the sweet chords and easy resolutions of major-key story-telling. Evans's virtual elimination of root harmonies from the left hand led, in some ears, to fiddly, weightless ornament.
A few sequences here do seem guilty of that charge. Yet the suite – as in another collage-style quest for a jazz legend, Michael Ondaatje's Buddy Bolden novel Coming through Slaughter – follows an inner logic of its own. Bill, having dived down into the nourishing pain of family memory, can face the keys once more within the "safe haven" of his art. Connected again to the roots of love and creativity, and to the fear of their inevitable loss in time, his music "feels like salvation".
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