Debbie Burke - Death by saxophone

Debbie Burke is a jazz author and editor who also loves to let her imagination run riot by writing fiction. From the title onwards, her new novel is a romp through the decline and fall of smooth jazz. It's delivered with affection and humour, following the life and death of sax star "Jerry Z". Jerry dies with his saxophone to his lips, in mysterious circumstances which aren't revealed until the final pages.

The story starts in New York, shifting from the grey, idealistic heyday of modern jazz to the colourful but nervous world post 9/11. You can literally taste and smell the New York locations through the vivid writing; a police station smells of "sweat, anxiety and disappointment, plus the ghost of half eaten lunches of every international cuisine imaginable".

Jerry too starts out idealistic, in love with a black female sax player who is excluded from opportunity by two varieties of prejudice. So he gets the best gigs and gradually comes to believe that he is entitled to his luck and privilege.

Then we see Jerry through the long-suffering but indulgent eyes of his PA Rozina as his career starts to slide. He still has his melodies, his sound and his fans; "middle aged ladies". I loved some of the colourful details; "Jerry stepped over the flowers that had been tossed on stage (sadly, no more thongs; a sign of inevitable decline)."

His "ultra-ergonomic smart office chair..... had a heater for the tush and cushions designed to fit his every lump and bump." But smooth jazz is no longer fashionable and it stings when he's described as "an artificial vibemeister" He asks his favourite sax "Am I a hack?" just before he dies by falling from a bridge. Is it suicide, an accident or murder?

Then follows a twisting sub-plot involving radiology tech Becka Rifkin, whose only link to Jerry is a plan to take her mother to one of his concerts. Then she meets mysterious Russian Pyotr Fisheleff, travels to St. Petersburg and becomes linked to Jerry through the black market in jazz "bone records", produced on discarded X-rays during the Cold War. Becka comments that the story is unfolding "like an Escher painting, all inverted staircases and impossible geometry" - and you have to admire a plotline which includes an injury to Stalin's daughter and a kletzmer jam session involving virtuoso theremin in a launderette!

The author is great at describing characters through their inner thoughts; "She realized she needed to do something about her jaw. Unclenching it would help." Or "She needed to look around for a local music scene that didn’t scoff at the accordion."

This is a real page-turning entertainment, seasoned with Debbie Burke's infectious enthusiasm for music and food. It will make you want to listen to some jazz - not necessarily of the smooth variety - and munch some tasty New York snacks.

© Stephen Godsall

The book is available HERE

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