Song and Dance

In Laura Warrell’s first novel, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, jazz becomes a character all its own.

sweet, soft, plenty rhythm, laura warrell
Rachael Warecki

It’s the sort of rejoinder that’s so perfect it feels apocryphal: When asked by a reporter where jazz was going, Thelonious Monk, the famously enigmatic pianist, volleyed back, “I don’t know where it’s going. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere; it just happens.”

This incisive observation from one of bebop’s shrewdest architects, about trusting not just process but also mystery—blind, dangerous curves and all—is a recurring motif in Laura Warrell’s sumptuous debut novel, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.

What jazz is and where it’s going have been—for decades—subjects of passionate debate, but in the pages of Warrell’s novel, the pull, pulse, and potency of jazz is so self-evident that it becomes a character of its own.

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is a book of journeys—toward self-love, clarity, independence. At its center is a trumpeter named Circus Palmer, who has spent much of his messy existence chasing a difficult-to-pinpoint feeling—something like bliss, something like weightlessness, something like freedom, something like love. Pulled by desire, he moves, in his search, beyond the bandstand and into the lives of a succession of women to whom he offers more chaos than comfort.

When we meet Circus, with his leonine hair, lingering gaze, and always-at-the-ready bouquets of sweet talk (the “buttercups” and “darlin’s”), he’s just arrived at a critical turning point, celebrating his 40th year. Hours before a gig in Miami, he has a drink with one of his longtime girlfriends, Maggie Swan, an accomplished drummer chasing her own dream. Circus is drawn to Maggie because she’s easy to be with and makes no claims.

That is, until she reveals a new wrinkle that sends him into flight—emotionally and physically.

If jazz is, by one definition, freedom within structure, Circus’s life is a living model of that axiom. Divorced, the father of a curious and willful teenage daughter, Koko, he is still waiting for his break. While doing so, he threads through his days, playing taverns and sushi joints, teaching at a music college. Tethered by little, Circus is after something inexpressible, something “at the other end of his leaving.” As Warrell writes, “his buddies called it an itch he could never fully scratch, while the ex-wife called it a weakness, but it was neither of those things, this constant reaching out. What need was there to name it anyway, though if he had to call it something, he’d have called it a moving into idyllic spaces.”

Maggie’s revelation forces Circus to reassess; he nurses his own soul-deep hurt. Moreover, he’s aware of the steady pulse of the metronome and of his heartbeat, both reminders that time is passing. His students encourage but also chasten him. After one of his most gifted pupils offsets Circus’s praise by tossing back, “I’m not sure jazz is going to be my thing,” the teacher begins to question what has long been the very ground on which he stands.

For Circus, music is faith and salvation, a spiritual dwelling place: “You got the notes and arrangements, yeah, but once you start playing, something different happens. You don’t know what’s gonna come. That’s what it is about jazz. Everything else about living stops surprising you at some point, right?” Displaced, he fills the hours he’s not playing, or thinking about, music by losing himself in women, to varying degrees of intensity, recklessness, and detachment. At an emotional nadir, Circus admits, “I believe I’ve been looking for a feeling I can’t find anymore.”

Warrell has rendered sharp, individualized portraits of Circus’s garden of women: the Luzes, the Pias, the Angelas, the Raquels, the Peaches, the Carmens, the Josephines. Some of them pose fierce, some of them yearn, and some of them are broken too. Together, they form a parade of women whose names and numbers might be scribbled on cocktail napkins or matchbooks, lost in coat-pocket detritus, too often thrown away. Warrell’s careful eyes and ears, however, ensure that they are not.

In Circus’s encounters—which span years and miles—we feel the full weight of consequence. These are loves (platonic, filial, romantic) that have gone sideways, wrong. That hurt accrues and disfigures. Warrell has connected a collection of people who don’t know how love works, haven’t had an example of affection or trust or tenderness. So they hazard a guess and try to feel their way through it.

The novel’s dynamic narrative slides from player to player, point of view to point of view, with each character “trading twelves,” soloing on the melody, or improvising on an idea. In this way, both the action and the stakes build, while mimicking the structures and rush of jazz.

If Circus is the sun around which Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm orbits, his daughter Koko is the pulsating star. Koko is a de facto caretaker—both for her mother, Pia, who toggles between protective and aggrieved, and for her father, whom she provisionally idolizes, although they interact only a handful of times a year. Meanwhile, she navigates the toughest years of teenhood often on her own, trying to locate some place where she might feel the thrills and succor of love. Traipsing after the cool girls, beset by crushes on dodgy if not dangerous figures, she’s saved from what could be ruinous missteps by a gut instinct she has learned to follow.

For all her trepidation, her awkwardness, Koko is a mighty risk-taker, the consummate improviser. She is, in many ways, the emotional heart of this book. She’s also aptly named. The jazz classic “Ko Ko,” written by Charlie Parker, was the saxophonist’s breakout victory. Even as both audiences and critics pushed against his ideas, execution, and interpretation of jazz—and where he was taking it—that charging blast of notes did more than clear a pathway. It was a clarion call of change.

What makes Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm captivating is Warrell’s ability to write like music rather than about music, which is language in its own right. There’s a burnished precision to her prose; like a shimmering ride cymbal, it moves us from pattern to pattern, vignette to vignette, building on the theme of love.

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm explores the many ways hurt people hurt people, while on their own journey toward feeling whole. “The things I say to my trumpet, I can’t say to anyone else,” Circus reflects late in the novel. “…I…put my breath right into it.” But Warrell shows us that life, like jazz, presents the unexpected: swerving turning points, extraordinary portals to walk through. Not by plan but by example, Circus shows Koko what it is to chase something beyond what you can see, a light, a feeling, a dream, an idea finding shape, that’s new every time.•

Pantheon
SWEET, SOFT, PLENTY RHYTHM, BY LAURA WARRELL
Pantheon Bookshop.org
$26.04

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