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
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape