Jim Fusilli, pop and rock critic for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of a gritty, mafia epic novel,Narrows Gate.
As readers of Narrows Gate learn early in the novel, Bebe Marsala, a crooner who emerges in the late ‘30s and is soon the best-known singer in the western world, is influenced by the great jazz vocalists of the swing era, most notably Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. Bebe is based on the legend of Frank Sinatra – the city of Narrows Gate is a fictional version of Hoboken, NJ, where he and I were born and raised. It would’ve been easy to stock Narrows Gate with songs made famous by Sinatra, but Bebe Marsala isn’t Sinatra. He’s a perpetually immature man with vast talent, but also a desperate need for affection, attention, and acceptance. I knew if I were to pick songs for us to share when we’re with Marsala, I’d have to pick ones that reflected his chaotic emotional state.
Count Basie, Crosby, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Benny Goodman, Holiday, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Artie Shaw, among others, play a role in Narrows Gate. The soundtrack here includes some of their work, but also recent recordings I think reflect the sweep and overarching mood of the story:
“L’uomo Delle Stelle” by Ennio Morricone: A jaunty yet melancholy theme that establishes Narrows Gate as a bittersweet story that’s inseparable from the characters’ Italian heritage.
“Embraceable You” by Frank Sinatra: His performance in this 1941 recording is a masterful blend of youthful tenderness and emerging maturity. He turns the Gershwins’ tune into a plea for affection.
“Casa di Bambola” by Enrico Rava: A misty blues by the Italian jazz trumpeter, who is joined by the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and American drummer Paul Motian. I hear it as a theme for our beleaguered protagonists Sal Benno and Leo Bell.
“I Surrender, Dear” by Bing Crosby: Crosby was a terrific singer whose casual approach belied his level of artistry. Recorded in 1931, this version informed Bebe’s style as a vocalist.
“If I Could be with You” by James P. Johnson: When I hear the stride-piano master Johnson’s sly performance, I see Benno strolling happily along Polk Street, his fedora bouncing amid his shock of black curls.
“All or Nothing at All” by Frank Sinatra with Harry James: In Narrows Gate, the song is a demand for absolute, unwavering devotion. You are at great risk if you fail to oblige.
“Solitude” by Allen Toussaint: The Ellington composition is the pivotal song in the novel. This 2009 recording by Toussaint and the guitarist Marc Ribot aches with loneliness and alienation.
“Tarantella” by Lars Danielsson: The Swedish bassist gives us a spry song of motion and trepidation that underscores the adventures of Benno and Bell as once-distant danger moves in.
“Five Minutes More” by Frank Sinatra: In Narrows Gate, Bebe sings a swinging little number that scores with his fans, but is beneath his talent and ambitions. He erupts when he hears his wife Rosa and their baby son Bill Jr. enjoying it.
“Sweet Lorraine” by Nat King Cole: When Bebe decides to cut a jazz album – “Music for People Who Get Laid” is its crude working title – he stumbles badly on this standard. The downward spiral accelerates.
“El Colibri” by John Williams: A flamenco flurry for the beautiful actress Eleanor Ree.
“Taxi War Dance” by Count Basie: With Bell in tow, Benno confronts the mob. He seems the only one who isn’t aware that the conflict isn’t likely to end well.
“Pinocchio” by Gianlugi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia: A joyful piece by the Italian clarinetist and accordionist, respectively. Benno is back in the bosom of Polk Street. But is he safe?
“The Swinger’s Jump” by Duke Ellington: Our story is driving toward an explosion. In this jump blues, drummer Jimmy Johnson’s beat is relentless.
“Solitude” by Billie Holiday: A heartbreaking reading dripping with anguish and regret. Bebe listens and can’t bear the pain.
“Totò Nei Caraibi”bythe Gianluigi Trovesi Ottetto: A powerful lament becomes an uptempo splash of joy. It’s a moment of gentle celebration for us to share as our adventure draws to its inevitable close.