Thursday, March 27, 2008

Horne’s Blues

Shades of Blue
By Bill Moody
Poisoned Pen Press

The fictional jazz sleuth Evan Horne plays piano. His creator, novelist Bill Moody, is a drummer. Since the Horne mysteries are written in the first person, I have sort of inadvertently conflated the two, despite their different instruments. However, given the relentless personal drama befalling Horne in his latest installment, Shades of Blue, one hopes the series, or at least this particular entry, is not particularly autobiographical.

In past books, Horne has reluctantly solved historic mysteries related to the music, while rebuilding a once promising jazz career nearly cut short by an auto accident. Each has essentially stood alone, but Horne’s personal life has formed a continuous storyline throughout the series. At this point, I have lost track of Horne’s various former girlfriends. However, notably in the previous book, Looking for Chet Baker, Horne is betrayed by a close friend and recurring character, in a legitimately surprising plot point that Moody deserves credit for. As a result, trust issues hang over Shades and become more pronounced as events unfold.

Horne has a hard time in Shades. Calvin Hughes, his mentor, passes away, leaving his estate to his piano protégé. He also bequeaths Horne some family mysteries, including some hand-written lead sheets that hint that Hughes might have had a hand in writing tunes for the classic Miles Davis sessions, Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool. Moody here takes inspiration from a real-life controversy (referenced in the novel) between Davis and Bill Evans over the authorship of “Blue in Green” from the former album. Unquestionably the most popular jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue is also a touchstone for Horne as well. Moody writes in his character’s voice:

“But there was something else about Kind of Blue, as if I’d heard this music before I’d even become aware of it. It has sounded familiar the first time I’d listened.” (p. 6)

Within the first few pages, Horne learns of Hughes’s death and his FBI agent girlfriend is wounded in the line of duty, but his trials and tribulations are just beginning. It is not all bad for the musician-sleuth though. He is unexpectedly offered a chance to record on Roy Haynes’ next album, with Ron Carter on bass, both of whom seem really cool in the novel. Moody is strongest when describing the act of creating jazz and his account of the Haynes session is a highlight of the book. Moody lovingly describes their studio time in near magical terms:

“Carter and Haynes poise for my cue and I begin the vamp. For a moment, I’m lost in the dream that Bill Evans played these exact same chords on Kind of Blue in 1959. I nod, feeling Haynes and Carter watching, and we go right into “Rhapsody.” I do three choruses, glance at Carter, who takes two, his beautiful tone singing through the headphones, then two choruses of eight bar exchanges with Haynes. He’s all over the drums but in such a melodic way, it’s always clear where he is in the tune, and more than demonstrating his nickname ‘snap crackle.’” (p. 130)

Moody is always spot-on when writing about the music itself. He has also improved as a crime novelist as the series has progressed. In Shades though, the actual criminal elements feel almost tacked on, as Moody seems much more preoccupied with family mysteries this time around. Those family secrets intersect with enough jazz history to hold the interest the series’ fans (in which I include myself). Evan Horne is a very likeable character, so let us hope he has less drama and more crime (preferably historical) to deal with in the next book.