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.