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Zelda & Jazz: it really works

Lost in the woods.

Vintage artwork for the Zelda game The Adventure of Link. The familiar green-clothed elf stands before us, with an awkwardly determined look on his face.
Image credit: Nintendo

Up until recently, I had a dear friend named Ray who was really into jazz. Ray was in his 80s when I knew him, and as a result, he was a bit of a gateway to Brighton in the 1950s. 1950s Ray really loved jazz, and 2023 Ray was there to tell me about what it was like to love jazz in Brighton back then. It was a town of cider bars for the most part, as Ray told it, but underneath a lot of bars were jazz venues, all literally underground, and the greats from the whole world of jazz would come and play in darkened, smoky rooms in this strange town stuck on the chill edge of England. This was always done under assumed names, which was something to do with managers and payments, I gather. The important part: you had to be in the know to access any of this.

I thought of Ray earlier this week when I got an email about a new jazz record that's appeared on Spotify and probably other places too. I don't get sent a lot of emails about jazz, which is surprising given what an unbearable 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 is a series of "forward-leaning arrangements" of classic Zelda music originally written by Koji Kondo. I've been listening to it all week, leaning forward, as have the rest of the team at EG, I gather. I've been listening, thinking about Ray, and also thinking about how jazz and Zelda fit together so well.

Let's add upfront, this subject is something my colleague Edwin has already covered much more intelligently than I'm about to. The scattered, freewheeling piano of Breath of the Wild is distinctly jazz-like, and, as he argues, it's a brilliant guiding hand on the player's elbow for wherever a scattered, freewheeling game might take you. If you're only going to read one article on Zelda and jazz today, gosh, go and read that one - it's a wonderful piece of 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 keep thinking of Ray and jazz as he encountered it, jazz as an underground experience you had to be in on. And I think about the one 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 at this show, listening along, and realising I was absolutely not in the know. Have you ever listened to music you don't really understand in public? People were applauding at what seemed to be completely random moments. People were nodding at one another and blithely acknowledging events that I had not even spotted as they occurred. After a while, my ignorance, while shameful, became kind of thrilling too. I felt like an explorer out in a distant nebula, encountering some kind of physical field that my senses could not reliably confirm.

Part of me wants more of that from any jazz I listen to now. I want to be deliriously confused and transported, delighted by all these magical things I do not yet understand but also dearly want to understand. I want to be in the know one day! Zelda & Jazz is slightly gentler than all this, I think, and that's because I do already know Zelda. So when the album opens with Ocarina of Time and I hear those first few notes and then a brush, I'm back in Hyrule field with the mist and the moon, and the attendant shimmer of jazz cymbal just feels right from the off. Zelda's Lullaby becomes a glass staircase rising through the dreamy night and I'm right there with it. Lost Woods, meanwhile, which adds these playful twills of sound to the end of certain familiar notes, captures the player's confusion in a way I'm prepared for too. As the theme warps and speeds up and slows down and goes in unexpected directions I think: of course it does. We're all lost in the woods together.

Onwards The Deku Trio lead me, and they riff on Zelda in a way that reminds me of the way each new Zelda game riffs on the rules and rituals of the games that have come before, sometimes repeating the famous bits straight, sometimes diving in for a deep cut. Harmonious stuff, but maybe this combination of Zelda and jazz gets at another preoccupation that I can only just get the tips of my fingers on.

My stepmother, who is a musician and who has the most profound case of synaesthesia in anyone I have ever met - the days of the week hang at different heights, the numbers have different colours and tastes, her migraines are Busby Berkeley numbers - once told me that music is a place to her. I don't think she was being anything other than literal. It's got geometry and surfaces. It has nooks and dens. That ties together with jazz for me, I think, because I can't think of jazz at all without thinking of the first pages of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, with the Black narrator living secretly "rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites", in a section of basement that's been shut off and forgotten.

Down here, he has wired the ceiling with exactly "1369 lights… and not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type". This is part of his fight with Monopolated Light and Power, and it's not over. He has a radio-phonograph and he plans to have more. Five in total. "When I have music I want to feel 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 that's jazz, I reckon. And while it would be impossible for me to meaningfully connect this with Zelda, these moments still brush up gently together for me: Zelda loves worlds slotted in alongside each other, and two ideas of place that are fixed in opposition.

More. A while back at a brilliant art exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, I first discovered Sun Ra, the composer, poet, bandleader, artist - there is no end to him. One picture of the man has lead to a fascination that has gripped me for the last few years much as Zelda did back when A Link to the Past came out. I read books. I try to understand what I am hearing when I listen to Sun Ra.

Again, these things aren't remotely 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 and virtuosity and boundless imagination.

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