String Theory, a project cowritten with Morgan James, is scheduled to release in late June 2021. Written during the height of the pandemic, this was our escape into a brighter, more hopeful post-COVID world. Many of our predictions were off, and it can be hard to edit knowing as we do now that our optimism didn’t quite meet with reality.
Fortunately, despite that, this book is… really frickin’ fun. Here’s an excerpt where Ari, a professional pop violinist, plays with piano bar virtuoso Jax for the first time.
Ari drew his bow over the strings, and the music vibrated through his body. He’d played this chord countless times; it began the refrain of one of his oldest pieces. But playing it had never felt like this before.
Jax sat behind the piano, head tilted at an alluring angle, a smile on his lips as his fingers flew across the keys in an approximation of Ari’s music. It couldn’t be expected that anyone other than a professional could learn to play so many songs so quickly, and the occasional errors and fudging of complex chords and progressions were to be anticipated. Still, Ari hadn’t expected the flourishes.
Jax added in an extra note here, a chord hop there, but instead of his creative license setting Ari’s teeth on edge, Ari wanted to know more. It made the music more dynamic. What other ideas did Jax have?
He pulled his bow from his violin as the last notes died out and the audience cheered. Ari set down his violin and grabbed his water—adrenaline was drying his mouth. When he’d swallowed, he said, “Once again I’d like to thank Jax Hall for assisting us tonight while we wait for our regular pianist.”
“I’m not exactly on Ari’s level.” Jax flashed the audience a self-effacing smile. “As some of you may have guessed, I’ve never played any of this music before. So I hope you’re not too disappointed.” He winked.
Naomi, finishing off her own drink break, laughed into the microphone. “You’re doing just fine, Jax. Just try to keep it up on this next song.”
“Oh, darling, I’ll always try to keep it up with you.”
Ari reset his violin and passed the bow quickly over the strings—a quick hello to the instrument, a habit of long standing.
“I wrote this song when my sister got married.” The crowd awwed as they always did.
Ari looked to Naomi and Jax to make sure they were ready, and so it began.
He had played this song countless times, yet he couldn’t help but sneak glances at Jax. His whole body seemed to vibrate with the music, as if he could feel Ari’s bars with his body.
When they arrived at the octave jump, Ari expected him to fudge his way through it, but he managed it ably. Jax the bartender did not play the piano “passingly,” as he’d told Ari before they took the stage. He didn’t have the polished accuracy of a seasoned performer, but he seemed to have something of a natural feel for the music and the instrument. He played with the whole piano, not just his fingers.
As the song came to a close, Jax gave a little flourish that sent blood rushing through Ari’s fingers and ears, and before he could second-guess himself, he mimicked the flourish and added his own.
Jax’s head snapped up. Their eyes met. And after the barest hint of a pause, a smirk played across Jax’s mouth. Then he bent over the piano once again and responded to Ari’s sally. And then Ari answered, and—
And before he knew it they were playing something new, something just for them, leaving Naomi behind on the stage, making it up as they went, using the original progressions and chords from the song to build something unique, responding to each other’s interpretation. At times they played together; others they waited for a response. It was electric, thrilling. The music poured through Ari’s fingers like water over Niagara—too fast, too intense, but perfect, perfect—
It barely lasted two minutes, and it left Ari panting and exhilarated, staring at Jax, who stared back over the top of the piano, apparently—at last—unable to counter Ari’s musical argument, the audience going wild around the bar.
“And that, comrades,” said Murph into the house microphone with an only slightly admonishing glare in Jax’s direction, “was the Rock’s own Jax Hall filling in for Rosa Doyle on piano. Rosa’s made her way here now, so the musicians are going to take a short break to reset.”
Ari set down his violin and executed a short bow to the audience, his mind spinning.
He had played with orchestras and professional musicians all over the world prior to the pandemic. He had performed for crowds of thousands. But he had never felt so electrified as he had improvising an ending to one of his songs with a man who’d never played it before today.
As he made his way back to the green room, he tried to untangle his emotions. Under the sheer exhilaration, something felt raw, as though a part of him had been peeled back and exposed to view. How could a casual musician with no formal training read him like that, twist Ari’s own music that way? It made him feel unworthy of his education. He should do better.
It made him want to do it again.
“So was it just me,” Jax said, and Ari froze as he realized that Jax had followed him, because of course he had. He was one of the musicians, for the moment. “Or was that completely awesome?”
Ari wanted to thank him and tell him he had been acceptable. But given the circumstances, that faint praise seemed beyond rude.
Naomi saved him from his dilemma. “Eh, you were all right,” she said, nudging Jax with a shoulder.
Good. Let her be the one to damn him.
Jax didn’t seem perturbed. No doubt the two of them were used to teasing each other. A dynamic that seemed to grow organically between Murph’s employees. “I was at least a little bit awesome. You two are incredible, though. That was so cool.”
He really couldn’t stand still—he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, and his fingers were twitching like they wanted to get back to the keys. His cocksure attitude from the stage had dissipated, leaving behind only sweetly enthusiastic charm.
“Thank you for accompanying us,” Ari said. “Your performance was admirable.”
Jax opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Naomi stepped on his foot. It didn’t look accidental. “It was fun,” he said, leaving Ari wondering what he might have said. “I hope I didn’t screw up too bad.”
Ari, who hated when people didn’t respect his work, found he could not say so in the face of such earnestness. Especially not since they had led to that invigorating finale. “No,” he said. “Not at all.”
Naomi was giving him one of her looks—one that she had once translated for him as “dial down the intensity; you’re scaring the civilians.” He recognized that he was staring rather intently and forced himself to blink and take a step backward.
“Please excuse me. I need to go over the revised set list with Rosa.” They had switched up the songs in order to put the less complicated piano parts earlier in the show. “Would you prefer the check for your services to be sent here or to another address?”
Now Jax blinked, taking a step backward of his own. Ari must have surprised him. “Ah, you don’t have to—”
Ari could not allow any misunderstandings on this point. Especially these days. “Jax. Musicians in my employ are paid. I insist.”
Jax quirked a small smile. “Well. All right, then. I guess I’ll head back to the bar. You want anything?”
Your phone number, Ari thought, and then was horrified at himself for it. Such an overture would be inappropriate. “No, thank you.”
“Martini, dirty. Hold the innuendo.”
“You’re no fun.”
“That’s a nasty rumor.”
“Prove it!” was Jax’s parting remark as he about-faced and swanned out the door.
Naomi shook her head and grabbed a bottle of water from the counter. “He does like to make a dramatic exit.”