Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

Pantheon. Sept. 2022. 368p. ISBN 9780593316443. $28. F
DEBUT “Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm,” proclaimed Jelly Roll Morton, and Warrell plays her exceptional first novel with plenty of rhythm and tenderness, delivered in brisk, mordantly gorgeous language that has its own natural flow. At its heart is fortyish jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer, a powerful, leonine, charismatic heartbreaker who performs regularly but hasn’t made it to the top of his profession, and the women connected to him. There’s Maggie, a brilliant drummer who has just learned she’s pregnant; put-upon ex-wife Pia; Koko, his confused teenager daughter, desperate for his love and attention; Odessa, a woman mourning loss whom Circus helps; pickups like bartender Peach and drama teacher Angela (Circus is decidedly a love-them-and-leave-them type, engaging on his terms only); and more. Each woman has her own life, her own story—none is defined by Circus, though all are touched by him—and as in any good jazz piece these stories play off one another seamlessly. In the end, Circus isn’t just damager but damaged, coming to terms with his limits and learning to reach out, an understanding that Warrell movingly delivers.
VERDICT A highly recommended story of love and life that makes beautiful music.
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