Zelda & Jazz: it really works

Until recently, I had a dear friend named Ray who was really into jazz. Ray was in his 80s when I met him, and as a result he was a bit of a gateway to Brighton in the 1950s. 1950 Ray really loved jazz and 2023 Ray was there to show me what it was like to love jazz in Brighton in that time. It was a town of cider bars for the most part, as Ray told him, but beneath many of the bars there were jazz venues, all literally underground, and the greats from all over the jazz world would come and play in dark rooms and smoked in this strange town stuck on the cold edge of England. This was always done under assumed names, which involved managers and payments, I gather. The important part: you need to know to access any of these.

I thought of Ray earlier this week when I received an email about a new jazz album that appeared on Spotify and possibly other places as well. I don’t get a lot of emails about jazz, which is surprising given how much of an insufferable hipster I continue to be, but this is a record called Zelda & Jazz, by The Deku Trio, so it slipped through. A pause here for that name: The Deku Trio. Anyway, here’s a series of “forward-leaning tweaks” of the classic Zelda music originally written by Koji Kondo. I’ve been listening to it all week, leaning forward as the rest of the team at EG, I gather. I listened, I thought about Ray, and I also thought about how jazz and Zelda fit so well together.

Let’s add further, this topic is something that my colleague Edwin has already covered much more intelligently than I am ready to do. Breath of the Wild’s freewheeling, distributed piano is distinctly jazz-like and, he argues, a great guiding hand at the player’s elbow for wherever a distributed, freewheeling game might take you. . If you’re only going to read one article on Zelda and jazz today, gosh, go and read it – it’s great writing.

The Deku Trio is a project by Rob Araujo of Chillhop fame and Chris Davidson of GameChop. Watch on YouTube

But beyond all that I continue to think of Ray and jazz as he encountered it, jazz as an underground experience that you had to be in. And I think of the only jazz show I’ve been to myself, lured to London by a Hammond-obsessed friend and the promise of a Hammond virtuoso, Dr Lonnie Smith, who sometimes played particularly important solos with his nose. I was on this show, listening along, and realized I was absolutely clueless. Have you ever heard music that you didn’t really understand in public? People clapped at what seemed to be completely random moments. People were nodding to each other and bravely acknowledging events that I hadn’t even seen happen. After a while, my ignorance, while embarrassing, also became somewhat exciting. I felt like an explorer in a distant nebula, encountering some kind of physical realm that my senses could not confirm with certainty.

Part of me wants more of every jazz I hear now. I want to be confused and deliriously transported, delighted by all these magical things that I don’t understand yet, but also really want to understand. I want to know one day! Zelda & Jazz is a little softer than all of that, I think, and that’s because I already know Zelda. So when the album opens with Ocarina of Time and I hear those first notes and then a brush, I’m back in Hyrule Field with the fog and the moon, and the twinkling of the jazz cymbal is instantly felt. Zelda’s Lullaby becomes a glass staircase rising through the dreamy night, and I’m right there with it. Meanwhile, Lost Woods, which adds these playful twills of sound to the end of some familiar notes, captures the player’s confusion in a way I’m also prepared for. As the theme warps and speeds up, slows down and goes in unexpected directions, I think: of course it does. We are all lost in the woods together.

Next, the Deku Trio leads me, and they beat Zelda in a way that reminds me of how every new Zelda game riffs on the rules and rituals of the games that have come before, sometimes repeating famous parts straight, sometimes plunged for a deep cut. Harmonious stuff, but maybe this combination of Zelda and jazz is another preoccupation that I can only get my fingertips on.

My stepdaughter, who is a musician and has the most profound case of synesthesia of anyone I’ve ever met – the days of the week hang at different heights, the numbers are different colors and tastes, her migraines are Busby Berkeley numbers – said once I that music is a place for it. I don’t think it was anything but literal. It has geometry and surface. There are nooks and crannies. It’s jazz-related for me, I guess, because I can’t think of jazz at all without thinking of the first pages of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, with the black narrator secretly living “rent-free in a rented building strictly whites,” in a part of the basement that has been closed off and forgotten.

Down here, he’s wired the ceiling with exactly “1369 lights… and not fluorescent bulbs, but the older, more expensive type to use, the filament type.” This is part of his war with Monopolized Light and Power, and it is not over. He has a radio and plans to have more. Five in total. “When I have music, I love it smelt its vibration, not only with my ear, but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue’ – all at the same time.”

Now it’s jazz, I guess. And while it would be impossible for me to meaningfully connect this to Zelda, these moments still blend gently for me: Zelda loves worlds that are separated next to each other and two ideas of place that are fixed in opposition.

More. A while ago at a fine art exhibition at Turner Contemporary, I first discovered Sun Ra, the composer, poet, bandleader, artist – there’s no end to him. A photograph of the man has led to a fascination that has gripped me in recent years like Zelda when a link to the past emerged. I read books. I try to understand what I’m hearing when I listen to Sun Ra.

Again, these things are not the same, but the engagement with both is somewhat similar. Here I am, encouraged to explore bright, brilliant things and witness spectacular beauty, all delivered with expertise, virtuosity and boundless imagination.

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