‘Hands that knew’ Intermission – Owen Martell

intermission-jkt-LST107303

The relationship between music and language is intuitively close, but fiendishly difficult to understand. Rhythm, metre, cadence, intonation, and interplay all serve and are served by both. Structurally, too, there are analogies between pieces and poems, stories, novels, collections. Yet to move beyond analogy and metaphor to any actual affinity between music and language, music and writing, the experience of listening to music and that of reading literature, is a challenge. Thus to attempt in a novel to both capture something of the nature of jazz in one’s prose and structure, and to explore the minds of four people, one of whom was something of a genius in his field, is a tall order. Perhaps too tall.

 the fundamental question is one of life, of how to live, precisely, in music.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are widely acknowledged to be two of the greatest live jazz albums. Both emerged from sets played by the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard in New York on 25th June 1961. Evans at the piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, Paul Motian on drums: each attuned and in melodic sympathy to the other two, pushing forward with their material as only this trio could. Ten days later LaFaro died in a car accident. Evans was devastated by the loss of someone with whom he had so deep a musical communion.  In Intermission Owen Martell addresses what happened next as Evans is passed like a theme between his brother Harry, his mother Mary, and father Harry Sr, before the devastated pianist completes the quartet. Each has their own baggage: a less talented older brother, an unhappily married wife, a father who has retired and lost his purpose. Bill’s presence seems to absorb the cares of others, bringing them either to consummation or to crisis.

 ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.’

As the Miles Davis epigraph suggests, Martell’s aim is to explore the central tragedy by implication and allusion, to create, as it were, a negative image of Evans’ turmoil. This is a really interesting idea, but it does not quite work. What made this trio great is precisely what undermines Intermission. Evans, LaFaro, and Motian are each masterful, each capable of producing great work. Yet it is in their interplay, their cohesion, and the resultant exploration that the Vanguard recordings become so special. Martell produces passages of beautiful writing, probing what might be tired themes by spreading into unexpected thoughts and rhythms, much like Bill himself. There is a lovely line of thought emphasising the contingency of every act of musical expression. But too often the thread is lost as the balance tips too far toward the odd and occasionally dissonant line. Too many paragraphs end with a short punctuation mark of a sentence, an offbeat following a flowing couple of sentences.  That period halts rather than syncopates Martell’s rhythm; and each repetition lessens any effect.

 a competition of brothers

Evans’ family view him through a prism of working-class immigrant aspiration, waning tradition, and parental pride. But for all the depth of feeling, this novel can feel cold. And in that sense Martell is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Less emotional detachment coupled with more modest aims surrounding the themes of inheritance and home – admittedly rich veins from the point of view of a standards-centric jazz tradition – might have created a greater focus whilst allowing the prose to retain its exploratory tone; and some of that prose is very satisfying indeed. In what is the strongest section, ‘The Colour of Saying’, Harry Sr. considers his and his wife’s aging:

 It isn’t a realisation, however, more like catching up with an evidence. Something he’s known well enough for some years already, having seen the decline as it was happening. He didn’t always pay it particular attention but there it was all the same, in the way everything remade itself as present, in flickering permanence, like television. It was the very real evidence of nothing being actually past. Mary’s smile, his hands. What he sees now, all he has before him, is everything he’s ever seen. Before going to meet Mary, he used to scrub his hands with wire wool, inspecting them carefully for signs of manual labour, then thrust them into his jacket pockets. Twenty-five years later, they’d be swollen and hot when he woke up on mornings after nights before. And all this is perfectly visible, he thinks, in the fact that they now tremble.

That is a wonderful paragraph: flowing, slipping through time, tied up in an affecting image. Martell is particularly fine on that silent accumulation of present moments which seem so still and yet encompass entire lives. It is clear, however, that a variation of this paragraph could lose itself in its own exploration. I think that happens with several passages, particularly in Mary’s section ‘All Night Vigil’ and in Bill’s ‘Acknowledgement’. Bill’s section doesn’t work for me. Again, it is not the absence of fine writing. Perhaps the problem – bound within the very title – is that the intermission, the absence of music in Bill’s life, requires that the music be present such that the reader misses it, such that they feel something of that loss. Without being particularly familiar with Evans’ life and work this can be a barrier. It becomes unclear why this is a book about Evans in particular, rather than any person in such family circumstances who suffers a tragedy – at least until the very end, when Martell  comes to Evans and ‘the particular tones of his fragility.’

 What would remain of them, she thought, was bound to be unsaid.

Fundamentally, Intermission is a great idea that does not quite come together and feels mannered as a result: a problem when writing of and in a jazz mode. The subheadings within each of the four characters’ sections clearly relate to the theme in their musical terminology, reference to standards, or liturgical hours, but they feel far from necessary. If you are looking for a jazz-infused and reflective book I would head to Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. Intermission is worth a read for some great passages of writing, but I think it could have been so much more.

I really recommend listening to the Village Vanguard albums. These links are to Spotify.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Waltz for Debby

The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961

Intermission is out on 3rd January from William Heinemann

My thanks to William Heinemann for this review copy.

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7 thoughts on “‘Hands that knew’ Intermission – Owen Martell

  1. Totally agree with this. And I’d recommend Rafi Zabor’s ‘The Bear Comes Home’ for a cracking novel based in the world of jazz.

  2. I spent the last few days transferring our jazz discs onto my iPhone, so I can listen more often and when not at home. Sunday at the Village Vanguard was among those.

    Anyway, an excellent review, and one that must have been difficult to write – at least I always find careful analysis of significant flaws to be the hardest task a review can present.

    I should really read that Dyer. Have you read much other jazz fiction? I own some but have yet to read it, though arguably Dos Passos captures something of it utterly indirectly.

      • I prefer to think of it as paying the writer the respect of taking their work sufficiently seriously as to merit meaningful criticism. There’s a world of difference between discussing areas that perhaps didn’t quite come off and why, and just chucking mud.

        There’s a review of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer at mine, and links in that to another blogger (Kerry) who knows him better than I do. In a word: recommended.

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