In a recent review of bassist Martin Nevin’s album Tenderness is Silent, writer Raul da Gama had the following to say:
“Overflowing with heavy, yet enchanting lyrical invention, this music—that Mr Nevin also likens to a series of slow-moving visuals—compels the listener to also follow along with a keen sense of narrative…it feels as though one is on a hot-line to the composer’s original source of inspiration. And it is this sense of glowing expressive candour that makes this an album to die for.”
This Saturday, Nevin returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform music from the record, as well as new material. Nevin will be joined by saxophonist Kyle Wilson, Ari Chersky on guitar, Craig Weinrib on drums, and Christopher Hoffman on cello. We caught up with Nevin to talk about his compositional process and creative intentions.
The Jazz Gallery: I hope you’re enjoying the weekend! You mentioned you are at home working on music—What does working on music look like for you?
Martin Nevin: We’re rehearsing tomorrow for the concert next week, so I’m trying to finish some new material and have it ready to play tomorrow. This is slightly different instrumentation than I’ve done before, so I’m trying to get the music to match the instruments that I have available.
TJG: I see you’ll have Christopher Hoffman on cello?
MN: Yeah. I love his playing. He’s so versatile. He can improvise so well, and can play bass lines, which you can hear on some of the stuff he’s done with Henry Threadgill. He can improvise with the bow, can play a melodic or supporting melodic voice… There are so many things he can do, which is a cool opportunity for me to play around with those different options.
TJG: He’s not on the album, Tenderness is Silent, is that right? Are you adapting the music to his presence, or will he mostly be on the new music?
MN: The show will be a mix of newer things and music from the album. I’m always trying to change the music to some degree. When we play, we try to do a different take on it, a different way of using the material. Having new people on different instruments helps with that: Suddenly, you can play the same piece of music with new color and sound quality. So yes, some of the music will be adapted from that material.
TJG: So to follow up on your process, what does “preparing the music” look like for you? The day before a rehearsal or gig, everyone has their own private rituals, things they like to do to get their music ready.
MN: I want to think of a really fun answer [laughs]. The more boring answer is that I make sure everything written on the page is going to help me get as close as I can to what I’m hearing in my head. The written music should help the musicians understand what I’m looking for generally, but the music doesn’t need so much information that it’s overwhelming. I strive for a balance of enough information, where the musical intention comes across, but that there’s also some room for interpretation. Sometimes, you get a piece of music and there’s so much, there are so many markings. Ultimately, my music only gets finished when we play it together, so there has to be room in the music for that to happen.
I’m interested in the meeting point between what I imagine while I’m writing and conceiving the music, and how things actually end up sounding. That’s exciting for me. Sometimes things evolve in an interesting direction that you can’t necessarily anticipate when you’re writing something. It’s important to be open to those possibilities, rather than saying “that’s not really what I had in mind.”If something goes really far from what you think the piece is about, then that’s obviously something to examine, but when you have musicians that you trust, whose their artistry you love, then from that point, you have to trust that what they’re going to do is going to enhance the music.
TJG: You loosely referred to your songs as being “about” something. Would you say that you consider everything on this Jazz Gallery set to be “about” something, and that the set as a whole is “about” something?
MN: That’s a great question. When I mean “about” something, I mean something more general, more abstract. I’m not really interested in giving a piece of music to someone and saying “Look, this is about such and such issue, play that.” The musical material should convey something without you having to explain its emotional center. When I refer to what it is “about,” I’m talking about communicating the core of the piece, in terms of what it conveys to the listener about mood and feeling. I feel like the people I work with intuitively gather “what it’s about.” They understand the world that the music inhabits, so that’s not something I tend to focus on or talk about.
TJG: You express something similar in the liner notes, writing that “Tenderness is Silent refers to the inadequacy of words in expressing the most important and deepest of all feelings.” There’s also a quote from Raul da Gama where he writes that your music “feels as though one is on a hot-line to the composer’s original source of inspiration.” So, words aren’t adequate to express the feelings and inspiration of the music, but we have an immediate connection to the music anyway. A simple question might be: Do you feel it is important that the audience know about the creative, inspirational space in which the music was created?
MN: It’s not important. I’m not interested in whether the audience can figure out what I was experiencing when the music was written. The important thing is that the music is strong and clear enough that it can have some kind of impact on people. It’s not so much that it has to be the same feeling as my source of inspiration. It’s more, “Can I create something where the audience can have an experience of their own? Can they be moved in some completely personal way? Does this music make sense in the context of their own lives?”
TJG: Would you say this feeling describes your experience of listening to your peers’ music?
MN: I’ll often try to gather as much information as I can when I find something that really interests me. I’ll try to see, “Oh wow, what is she about, what is he thinking,” because I’m interested in that process. But ultimately, I think it is not essential. Music should communicate something without you having to know what the composer had in mind. There should be some essential, universal quality that’s not based on any other information.
But you make a good point: My experience is different from the general audience. I like to investigate deeply into stuff I really like, because I enjoy that process of discovering who the person has studied, or what they might be thinking about. At the same time, as a listener, I often find it challenging to get into things that are too literal. If someone is telling me so specifically that a certain piece is about the time they went to the DMV and waited in a long line… [laughs] Okay, there’s no room for my imagination anymore. And who wants to revisit the DMV, even while listening to music? What I’m trying to say is that there should aways be room for the imagination of the listener to be able to take part. When you prescribe meaning very literally, you’re making a choice that imagination will play less of a part in the listener’s experience. I’m always trying to play with that balance. How much can I leave open for the listener to experience?
TJG: Do you find that prompt to be liberating, or are there times when it’s actually intimidating to say “Wow, I have to write something that feels so universal that people can get into it, but not so specific that they’ll feel trapped in a certain narrative?”
MN: An idea, or some text, can be wonderful, because it spawns a creative process. It puts you in a zone. But rather than try to literally convey that prompt–like a few lines of a text you like, rather than a literal sort of “let me play these words with music”–you have to discover what’s at the core of the text, the universal feelings that are evoked. When you find that, you have to go to that same place with the music. It’s not a literal transposition of the prompt: It’s being inspired by the world that the text evokes.
TJG: So when you’re working on a live show based on material from an album, how do you work on weaving new material into it, when you have such a strong identity with the album?
MN: Also a good question. I always try to present something that feels like a coherent whole. I want consistency. I want everything I play at a concert to fit into one world, as if the music could be one long, continuous piece. So if I’m bringing in new material, I’m careful not to disturb that feeling, that balance. The new material doesn’t have to sound the same as the old stuff, but it should not disturb or jolt someone so far away that it doesn’t make sense as a whole experience. You basically have to weave the new things into the narrative carefully so that there’s a sense to it as a whole, not leaving the listener with a feeling of detachment. I try to weave the individual pieces into a larger presentation.
TJG: Is there something about The Jazz Gallery that makes that kind of presentation particularly meaningful or poignant for you?
MN: It’s a true listening room. If you’re trying to create something very specific that has a mood and a feeling, an arc as a whole, it has to be in the right environment, where people are listening and are open to hearing new music. That’s what The Jazz Gallery is about: People coming and carefully checking out new music as it is created. That’s the mission. That’s what’s awesome about it.
Marin Nevin plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 26, 2019. The group features Mr. Nevin on bass, Kyle Wilson on tenor saxophone, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Ari Chersky on guitar, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.