On 25 June, 1961, Bill Evans – accompanied by Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums – recorded the tracks that would be released as “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby”, two of the most revered albums in modern jazz. Ten days after the live session at the famed New York club, LaFaro was killed in a car crash. The tragic death of the 25-year-old bassist credited with revolutionising the way his instrument was played affected Evans so deeply that he disappeared from the New York jazz scene for several months.These bald facts are as well-known to jazz fans as is Evans’s history of drug addiction. But Welsh novelist Owen Martell uses them as a basis for exploring not just the inner life of Evans but also the concerns of the people closest to him – his older brother, Harry Jr, and his parents, Mary and Harry.
“Intermission” – the first of Martell’s three novels to appear in English rather than Welsh – is a short book (barely more than 150 pages), but it is far from a quick and easy read. Divided into movements centred on each of these protagonists, it is a dark study of an artist being created out of the hopes and anxieties of those around him. From the moment that we see Harry Jr following his younger brother as he heads up to Harlem to obtain his fix, we are caught up in an almost suffocating atmosphere as the jazz giant starts to fall apart while his family apparently pretend that all is normal. Rather like a jazz performer playing around the melody, Martell introduces telling scenes of domesticity – whether reading to the niece honoured in “Waltz for Debby” or playing golf with his father in Florida, where his ever watchful brother sends him in the hope of aiding his recovery – that are just a respite (or intermission) from the pianist’s desperately sad and lonely existence. Imagined it may be, but the story in this book certainly casts fresh light on those recordings.
Roger Trapp blogs about music here.