A life on hold

Intermission by Owen Martell

Martell’s short novel takes a real event, the death of jazz bassist Scott LaFaro in a car accident in 1961, and imagines what followed.

LaFaro was the bassist in the Bill Evans Trio and died shortly after they recorded what are regarded as some of the best live jazz albums of all time (Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby). Before forming his own trio, Bill had played piano on Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue.  Martell’s story imagines what happened when trio leader Bill went to ground for several months after LaFaro’s death.

Fronted by an epigraph from Miles Davis “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” Martell attempts to do that in a way, but more of that later…

Bill is taken in by his brother Harry after Scott’s death, and later goes down to Florida to stay with his parents, Mary and Harry Sr. These three family members respectively take a turn to narrate the story, each taking a solo before handing over to Bill for the coda. Harry, Mary and Harry Sr reminisce about their own and the boys’ childhoods, growing up and how proud they all are of Bill who made something different of himself. No-one could be prouder than Bill’s mother, who is half-Russian and a musician-manqué herself. Her roots are grounded in Stravinsky and her favourite ballet of his, Petrushka, which contains the famous dissonant ‘Petrushka Chord’ much beloved of jazz artists too – indeed Harry’s first section is named after the chord.  Bill, stricken by grief and heroin, resembles nothing as much as the Russian puppet who comes to life.

This novel was not really what I expected from the blurb and the intriguing cover art. We learn virtually nothing about Scott, Paul – the other member of the trio, or the New York jazz scene – they are all peripheral to Bill’s grief,  it concentrates entirely on Bill and his family.

It’s all elegantly done, but there’s little jazz in this novel. Bill’s passivity absorbs all in its wake. The resulting prose is beautiful and carefully crafted, but was too drawn out to keep my full interest during the first two thirds; by the time that Bill begins to snap out of his funk, it was too late, so for me this book was disappointing.

Returning to Miles Davis’s epigraph, the author has looked at “what’s not there” – and eloquently described a musical void. But, the emphasis on the stop light on the cover and the novel’s title itself, do give a strong hint of the hiatus to come. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon Vine, please click below:
Intermissionby Owen Martell. William Heineman hardback, pub Jan 2013, 167 pages.
Sunday At The Village Vanguardby the Bill Evans Trio (CD)
Waltz For Debby [Original Jazz Classics Remasters] by the Bill EVans Trio (CD)
Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis (CD)

8 thoughts on “A life on hold

  1. Alex says:

    I love books about music and also those that have a link with real life, so I started reading your review thinking this might be another for the tbr pile. But, no. What a shame.

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