Heinemann, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Intermission, By Owen Martell

This fine if elusive novel about a jazz giant echoes his art in both its style and its story-telling

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".

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there