A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist Martin Nevin has been a stalwart of The Jazz Gallery community for nearly a decade, performing as a sideman with the likes of Sam Harris, Greg Osby, The Le Bouef Brothers and Adam Larson, to name a few. While his bass playing is highly regarded, Nevin has also established himself as a composer of note. His writing has an inviting elegance and raw complexity, complemented by a cinematic scope. 

This Wednesday, May 9, Nevin and his quintet will come to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Nevin’s debut album as a leader, Tenderness is Silent (you can check out a video of one track—”Sculpting in Time”—below).

We caught up with Nevin to talk about his multifaceted thinking on musical structure and the deep relationships with his bandmates.

The Jazz Gallery: What was the goal of this new album?

Martin Nevin: I want to share these compositions with the listener with the hope that he or she will be moved in some way. People don’t need to worry about whether they understand the music on a technical level, or to try to decode some kind of hidden meaning behind each piece. The music is born from a wide range of thoughts and experiences, some of which I think people will find mirrored in the ups and downs of their own lives. The album is an environment, a place for people to just listen and accept whatever thoughts and emotions come up for them.

TJG: Can you talk about the album title?

Tenderness is Silent is a poem by Anna Akhmatova which refers to the inadequacy of words in expressing the most important and deepest of all feelings. When love is present it is unmistakable, inexpressible, and silent. The music occupies that silence.

TJG: How did you pick the players on your new album, and did you keep them in mind while composing the music?

MN: The foundation for the group is Craig Weinrib (drums) and Sam Harris (piano). We’ve played as a trio under Sam’s name for about 8 years and we’ve spent countless hours working on and discussing music together. Making music with them feels like home for me. Their playing elevates and moves me. In terms of my music, Craig has a wonderful way of seeing the big picture, of understanding the essence of a composition and using the drums to guide the band with a sense of the overall narrative. I mostly write music at the piano, so the piano parts tend to be pretty dense. Sam has the rare ability to absorb a complex piece of music and very quickly make it sound like he wrote it himself. Like Craig, he finds the emotional core of a piece of music and creates something personal and poignant with it.

In terms of horn players, I’m really interested in working with musicians who see themselves as members of an ensemble and who are concerned primarily with how they can contribute to the overall sound of the band. (A solo is just one orchestration option, one possible texture.). Roman Filiú is one of the finest composers I know of and sees and performs my music with a composer’s sensibility. His playing is elegant yet deeply soulful; it can be reserved and it can be wild and sometimes it makes me want to put down my bass and dance. Kyle has a gorgeous sound and amazing ears. He establishes a deep connection to the rhythm section by intensely listening and tuning into what’s happening around him, leading him to improvise in a really pure way. The music on the album was written and arranged specifically for these four extraordinary musicians. For this concert we’ll also be joined by Pawan Benjamin on bansuri (wood flute). His playing is powerful—he can make you feel calm and contemplative with just a couple of notes. He plays music with deep concentration and a sense of purpose.

TJG: What are you listening to these days that is inspiring you or has impacted your compositions?

MN: I am currently working on a song cycle based on poems by Jonathan Creasy for the Jerome Fund for New Music, so I’ve been listening to a wide range of musicians that deal with songs in different ways. Trees Take Ease is singer/guitarist/songwriter Stephen Becker’s musical alias. Stephen went to my high school and I recently discovered his music. On his album, Something Waffle This Way Yums, he’s managed to create a really beautiful book of songs that is distinctive and intimate. Some other current inspirations are the many stirring interpretations of Mexican classic songs by Chavela Vargas and Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, which he first wrote for voice and piano and later revised for a higher vocal range and orchestra.

Some composers who were really important for me at the time I was writing the music for Tenderness is Silent are Duke, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Threadgill.

TJG: What about inspirations outside of music?

MN: Film has always been really important to me. My father is a cinematographer, so an appreciation of film as an artistic medium was instilled in me from a young age. Lately I’ve been focused on how filmmakers think about the structure and pacing of their work. There are so many ways films can go: some are meditative, some are extremely fast paced, some tell you what’s going to happen in the beginning and then spend the rest of the time leading you back to that point. I often gravitate towards films, (and pieces of music), that reveal themselves slowly, where the atmosphere slowly envelops and mesmerizes you.

Great artists create their own worlds that their audiences can temporarily escape to. They are extremely careful in constructing their world and make sure it is not disturbed by the inclusion of anything extraneous. There’s a film out now called Zama, by the Argentinean director Lucretia Martel, that really demonstrates this idea. The world she creates is powerful and hypnotic. She allows the viewer to go to a new place with her careful consideration of every detail—camera movement, lighting, structure, set design, etc. The use of sound in her films is extraordinary.

A composer has to be equally careful and conscious in creating a piece of music. Even when there are places for improvisation, the composer has to create the right world for the musicians to inhabit, the right material for them to be inspired by. Tenderness is Silent is sequenced to be experienced like a film, with each piece leading to the next. Structurally, I see the climax or arrival point near the end of the album on the track “I See it Feelingly.” Each piece can function individually but is part of a larger work. The cover of the album is a shot from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Mirror, and the record owes a lot to that film in terms of its mood, atmosphere and structure. Tarkovsky created something really personal that is also universal and relatable. That’s one of my goals for everything I create.

TJG: One thing I’ve noticed in your work is your relationship to the blues. Can you talk about how does that experience informs your music?

MN: Blues greatly informs my music in a variety of ways, some of which are more literal than others. For example, my piece “A Hundred Years of Talk” (on the album), is essentially a blues with very dense harmony. “The First of Many Exits” has a definite blues feeling which Sam evokes in his solo. Blues is a big part of my identity as a musician, it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about and dealing with in different ways. I think anyone passionate about jazz or black music in general has to have a personal relationship with blues. Each member of my band has his own way of relating to the blues, which is another reason that I’m drawn to their playing.

TJG: You obviously have a great hookup with Craig as a drummer. Are there other players who have informed the way you interact with drummers?

MN: I met Tootie Heath when I was a 15 year old student at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. I came into a room where he was sitting by himself at the drums and we played a duo version of “Have You Met Miss Jones?” It was one of those experiences that made me want to pursue a life in music. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to perform with him over the past few years. As a bassist, getting to play with a drummer of Tootie’s generation is the most rewarding experience you can have. There’s an immense amount of history and folk tradition that Tootie evokes whenever he plays. When you think about all the bassists he played with—Ron, Wilbur Ware, Charlie Haden, PC, Sam Jones, Buster Williams—it can be really intimidating, but Tootie plays in a way that is embracing and encouraging. That’s how he is as a person too.

TJG: You’ve played at The Jazz Gallery many times—can you describe your experiences as a sideman here?

MN: I’ve been lucky to play at The Jazz Gallery with a lot of different bandleaders over the years. My first time playing at the Gallery was with Sam Harris, and if you were to watch a video of all the performances I’ve done there with Sam, you would see a huge evolution taking place over time. Sam is an artist who changes and absorbs new ideas at an astonishing rate, and the Gallery has always been a place where he felt he could try new ideas.

Martin Nevin celebrates the release of Tenderness is Silent at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. The group features Mr. Nevin on bass, Sam Harris on piano, Craig Weinrib on drums, Kyle Wilson on tenor saxophone, Roman Filiú on alto saxophone, and Pawan Benjamin on bansuri. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.