An avant-garde jazz sextet hones its craft, hits the road, and tries to make sense of some unusual onstage goings-on.
N., the narrator of the fifth in this series of jazz-themed novels by Mackey (Bass Cathedral, 2008, etc.), is writing letters to the “Angel of Dust” in 1983 and 1984 about his group, the Molimo m’Atet. It’s an experimental group inspired by (to pick a few of the many names dropped) Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra, and Milton Nascimento, relying heavily on intuition and improvisation. The novel’s language is similarly off-the-cuff, deploying abstracted wordplay that foregrounds sound and rhythm as much as sense. (“Rickety buildup grew possessed of growl and grumble, an aroused rattle and would-be rafter shake amassing senses of emergence or at least emergency….”) Lines like those give the book a poetic lift, but Mackey is relentless in peppering the pages with such prose, recalling the line (often attributed to Thelonious Monk) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The skeletal plot turns involve N.’s flirtation with the group’s percussionist; an approving but intellectually-wanting concert review that prompts a group emergency meeting and press release; and, most surrealistically, the appearance of comic-book–style word balloons during performances, usually delivering semierotic messages. What to make of that? Art, of course: the band responds by giving the audience at a concert blow-up balloons to do with what they will, popping and rubbing in support of N.’s theories about air, sound, and the nature of music. The m’Atet’s performances in Detroit and their home base in Southern California uniformly receive wild applause, but this novel is a little harder to get behind: for all of its wild, free-wheeling spirit, overall it feels like an extended solo that keeps going after it’s run through all of its themes.
An appealingly brash if overworked experimental lark.