The lost summer of Bill Evans
In How My Heart Sings, his fine biography of the great pianist Bill Evans, published in 1998, Peter Pettinger devotes only a handful of sentences to the months in the summer of 1961 following the death in a car accident of Scott LaFaro, the prodigiously gifted 25-year-old bassist in Evans’s trio. The fatal crash occurred late at night on a country road in upstate New York 10 days after the group had finished a lengthy and historic season at the Village Vanguard. So devasted was Evans that he did not play again for several months: a period in which he came second (behind Thelonious Monk) in the Down Beat critics’ poll, and third in the same magazine’s readers’ poll, which was won by Oscar Peterson. “I didn’t realise how it affected me straight away,” he told the critic Martin Williams. “Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home.”
In fact he retreated into the haven provided first by his brother, Harry Jr, in New York, and then by his father, Harry Sr, and mother, Mary, in Florida. There, his senses deadened by the tragedy and the sense of loss, he seems to have done little except play the odd game of golf with his father (a golf-course owner/manager) as he waited for the anguish to recede. And it is this period that forms the subject of Intermission, a short novel by the young Welsh writer Owen Martell, just published in the UK by William Heinemann.
In probably the most daring fictionalisation/reimagining of a jazz musician’s life since Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Martell views Evans’s period of withdrawal through the eyes of Harry Jr, Mary, and Harry Sr, interleaving memories of the pianist’s childhood in New Jersey with his relatives’ anxious, half-comprehending attempts to cushion the grief of a man whose distance from their world was exacerbated by the heroin addiction that began three years earlier during his time with the Miles Davis Sextet (a period during which he made a pivotal contribution to Kind of Blue) and would remain with him, on and off, until his death in 1980 at the age of 51. Evans slips in and out of the narrative like a ghost through unlit rooms: even to his family he is a fugitive figure, forever glimpsed sidelong and in shadow.
Martell, whose two previous novels were in the Welsh language, may have come to his subject through their common ethnicity: the pianist’s paternal ancestors were from Wales (his mother was born to immigrants from Ukraine). Occasionally the prose strains too hard for poetic effect but mostly it is suitably limpid and measured, while the author’s approach is consistently respectful of the self-appointed task of inventing the thoughts of real people. Sometimes the cadences recall those of Cormac McCarthy — particularly in the habit of concluding a paragraph with a verbless sentence — but with, of course, a far gentler attack.
A word should be spared for the elegant cover, by Suzanne Dean, which appropriates the format of Reid Miles’s design for the jacket of Freddie Hubbard’s 1962 Blue Note LP Hub Tones, applying it to a New York street photograph by the late Esther Bubley. It matches the tone of a quiet, perceptive study of a musician whose masterpieces exacted a cruel price.