murakami on jazz

I don't remember exactly when I discovered Haruki Murakami, but I think it was some time in the early '90s, back when people enjoyed globalization and the Asian tigers had not collapsed under the abrupt venting of their economies (remember those grand days? Somewhere between 1990 and 1997? That was the dawning twenty-first century utopia we all imagined, and it was gone before most of us could really appreciate it). I was working at secondhand bookstore, and Alfred Birnbaum's translation of A Wild Sheep Chase ended up on the shelves. I stole it.

What I liked most about Murakami was the way he would attack weighty, even transcendent subjects with prose that could best be called whimsical, with a slightly detached tone, as if he were telling you an anecdote at breakfast about a strange, half-remembered dream from the night before, or maybe it was a couple of years ago, who knows. Passages dip into homespun sentiment or cliche, then suddenly leap into some startling and original place. It was a palette-cleansing change from the Cormac McCarthy and Richard Russo and the Don DeLillo I'd been reading.

Somewhere along the way I lost my interest in his work. I don't mean to say that I started to dislike it; it's just that I ceased running to the bookstore or library, depending on my finances, to pick up the latest work. News of new Murakami no longer made my stomach flip. Part of the reason is that I prefer Alfred Birnbaum as a translator to Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel, and I think it's significant that my favourite Murakami works are all Birnbaum.

The most recent issue of The Believer contains a piece by Murakami called "Three Short Essays on Jazz," and there's a passage on Stan Getz that makes me think I should run back out to the bookstore or the library and start picking up Murakami again:

Of all Getz' works, my very favorite is the two-disc set recorded live at the Storyville jazz club in 1951. Getz truly surpasses himself in this performance - every facet of his art is superb. It may sound trite, but I find these records eternally nourishing. Try listening, for example, to the track entitled "Move". The rhythm section of Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Teddy Kotick, and Tiny Khan is perfect: they come across straight and cool, yet their rhythm flows with the smoldering force of subterranean lava. Even so, Getz is far and away the best. Soaring like Pegasus, he sweeps away the clouds to reveal in a single, blinding movement the bright panoply of stars. The music crashes against us in vivid waves, transcending time. What explains this power? It is because his melodies mercilessly awaken the pack of starving wolves each of our souls holds within itself. The breath of these beasts sinks wordlessly into the snow, so thick and white and beautiful you feel you could almost cut it with a knife. It is this that Stan Getz' music allows us to contemplate, the fateful cruelty that lies shrouded in the deep forest of our souls.

This is virtuosic stuff with a blanket of purple prose thrown over it. Phrases like "far and away" and "it may sound trite" cover up the unexpected Pegasus image (a flying horse? WTF, Murakami?) and then the kicker, the sudden bounding of a pack of starving wolves. Suddenly you wonder what the Pegasus is leaping for, and what appetites are being sated by Getz' "eternally nourishing" music. And then the bewildering introduction of snow that "you feel you could almost cut ... with a knife," an image that makes no immediate sense, because cutting snow with a knife is an easy feat. What he means, I think, is that this imagined snow, this white ground of the soul that is evoked by the music, evoked to allow the wolves a grounds on which to hunt and track, is so perfect and beautiful that it resonates at nearly the same frequency as reality. You hold it in a space in your mind and send in your senses to investigate further, but they can't quite penetrate.

The essay also made me put on Stan Getz for the first time in a year, which I imagine would please Murakami to know.