Words and music
From Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn to Josef Skvorecky’s The Bass Saxophone and beyond, many novelists have made use of jazz in their stories. Jazz musicians, in turn, sometimes take inspiration from novels and plays, as with Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and John Dankworth’s What the Dickens. Here are two new examples, coming from different angles and at different trajectories.
Jonathan Coe hoped for a career in music before becoming a celebrated novelist, playing keyboards in various bands before What a Carve-Up! established his career as a writer in 1994. The Rotters’ Club, a winner of the Wodehouse Prize in 2001, got its name from the title of an album by Hatfield and the North, giving a clue to his interest in the progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion music of the 1970s. He has collaborated with the High Lamas, Theo Travis and Louis Philippe, and now with Italy’s brilliant Artchipel Orchestra, whose previous projects have involved tackling the music of Soft Machine and Phil Miller.
Artchipel’s members arranged and performed several of Coe’s compositions at a festival in Milan in 2021, with the writer as a guest musician. A recording of the concert appeared recently as a CD included with an issue of Italy’s Musica Jazz magazine, and it turns out to be very enjoyable. The five pieces engage the senses in a twisty-turny Canterbury Scene kind of way, full of neat bits of melodic and rhythmic invention, adroitly fleshed out by the arrangers (including Ferdinando Faraò, Artchipel’s founder and leader).
Once or twice a tricky time signature gets in the way, but the music relaxes over the course of almost an hour, giving plenty of room for fine improvisations from the tenor saxophonist Germano Zenga on “I Would If I Could (But I Can’t)”, the flautist Carlo Nicita and the trombonist Alberto Bolettieri on “Erbalunga”, and the pianist Luca Pedeferri on “Spring in My Step”. Coe’s own solos, on electric piano on “Suspended Moment” and organ on a groovy closing passage in “Looking for Cicely”, are more than creditable. Two female singers, Naima Faraò and Francesca Sabatino, add a welcome extra texture.
Ten of the 11 pieces on Two Moons, a new album by the German pianist Sebastian Gahler, are inspired by the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, whose work often alludes to jazz, as well as pop and classical music. The eleventh piece is “Norwegian Wood”, the song which gave its title to Murakami’s breakthrough novel in 1987 and turned the author into something of a pop star himself.
I share Gahler’s interest in Murakami (I interviewed him for the Guardian here in 2003) and I like very much what he’s done with the idea, which is to make an album that might have come out on Blue Note in the early 1960s, alongside the contemporaneous work of people like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. This is a timeless form of music, so even though no boundaries are being stretched, equally nothing sounds tired or dated.
Fans of the books will recognise titles like “Girl with Magical Ears”, “Aomame” and “Crow”, but there’s nothing explicit in the music itself to indicate the presence of Murakami in the minds of the composer and his fellow musicians: Denis Gäbel on tenor and soprano saxophones, Matthias Akeo Nowak on double bass, Ralf Gessler on drums and, on two tracks, the trumpeter Ryan Carniaux. Here’s the trailer: nice to see that two-inch tape rolling on a Studer machine.
* To get hold of the Artchipel/Coe CD, you’ll probably have to buy a copy of the November 2022 issue of Musica Jazz (musicajazz.it). But YouTube has extracts from the Milan concert here and here and from a subsequent concert in Turin last summer here. Sebastian Gahler’s Two Moons is on the JazzSick label.
a nice moment. Just in the middle of reading Jonathan Coe’s ‘Mr Wilder and me’ , which is delightful. Set in the film world, though the heroine is music writer. I put the book down for a moment as my email beeped. And lo !you appeared.
So nice to see mention of Bass Saxophone. I was honored that Josef dedicated the English translation to me.
Mr. Richard Williams, we are very happy and honored, thanks for your attention, hope there will be opportunities for us to personally meet you in times not too far away. With esteem. Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra
Nice post. Always interesting to read about Coe. He’s slightly younger than me (and originates from the same neck of the woods) and his musical tastes very much chime with mine. Invariably enjoy reading his novels although sometimes I have a strange, elusive, somewhat dissatisfied feeling after having finished them (bit like I do when listening to ‘Canterbury scene’ stuff oddly enough) – my problem. Nice guy by all accounts – friend of mine knew him whilst JC taught at Warwick University.
Really enjoyed your 2003 piece with Murakami ( including references to CD-ROMs) and thanks for the link. Makes one want to read more of his stuff – loved ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ (which introduced me to Schwarzkopf singing Mozart) but the shaggy dog story that is ‘1Q84’ less so (echoes of the comments by Ishiguro in your piece).
With reference to musicajazz.it they have a “radio station” accessible from their website that’s really good.