In June 1961, the Bill Evans Trio, featuring Scott LaFaro, completes a series of concerts at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village that will become part of the iconography of jazz. Within days of the final performance, LaFaro is dead in a car accident and Evans has dropped off the jazz community’s radar, not to reappear for several months.
Owen Martell’s exquisite novella speculates about Evans’ life during his ‘disappearance’. Written in four voices – those of Bill’s parents, Harry and Mary, his brother, Harry Junior, and Bill himself – the novella probes the family dynamic with a knife-like precision and unflinching compassion. Martell’s deployment of language is as skilful and nuanced as Evans’ piano playing, and finds out the reader’s emotional tendernesses just as surely as listening to music of any kind can do. His fictional vision is clear and detailed, imbuing the most mundane of actions – washing up, playing a game of golf, taking the family to the beach on a Sunday – with an intensity which is beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. The world he evokes, with only the slightest of nods in the direction of the ‘big’ history of its time – the Kennedy presidency, Yuri Gagarin’s voyage into space – is an improbably harmonious blend of the quotidian and the portentous as the Evans family struggles with loss and disappointment against a brooding background of summer storms. In life, as in music, tiny adjustments have consequences just as forceful as major changes of key or syncopation.
The novella is elliptical and allusive, abjuring the conventions of mainstream storytelling to achieve something hypnotic and magnetising. Well worth the read even if, like me, you find jazz incomprehensible!