“Certain things for me are very hard to express with words,” explains JFund awardee and bassist Martin Nevin. His new record, Tenderness is Silent, deals with this problem. Apart from the classic jazz hall sound of the record, titles like “Grasp at Nothing” and “I See It Feelingly” are the sole verbal clues pointing towards his intentions. But, underneath the surface, there’s a dialogue going on between his band (made up of bass, drums, piano, and two saxophones) and his artistic vision. Listen between the notes, and you can hear him expressing himself without falling back on the shortcomings of human conversation.
So how does one translate words into music? It takes a special kind of artist. Nevin, who has always been drawn toward the written word, doesn’t emphasize one literary influence over another: “I really don’t want people to feel like there’s a right answer that they don’t understand.” He lets his listeners decide which picture to paint in their heads.
“Without Throat to Carry” leaves the door of interpretation wide open. A very obtuse melody, it sounds at first like a cautionary children’s tale or an inverted “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” You can imagine a voiceless person wandering about trying to tell a tale or warn people about some impending doom. As the piano and bass get more arrhythmic and frightening, the person’s lack of speech turns the tale into a lesson, encouraging the listener to honor the communication tools available to them.
This takeaway isn’t quite what Nevin had in mind when composing. “Whatever you get out of it, that’s what you get. Your interpretation is just as important as the artist intention.” He doesn’t demand to be understood exactly as he plans to be. In fact, all of Tenderness is Silent is a meditation on how words fall short, but how we do our best to express ourselves anyway.
Shakespeare was one of Nevin’s early influences, and King Lear asks similar questions of Gloucester: “No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light. Yet you see how this world goes.” Gloucester responds with “I See It Feelingly.” This quote gets us closer to the heart of Nevin’s artistic intention: “Everything you see and experience influences you in some way you’re not aware of. I’m not big on super literal adaptations of words.” Where analysis fails, our feelings can sometimes do the talking.
The album title comes from a poem by Anna Akhmatova, which discusses how we’re often uncomfortable when talking about feelings. This music is meant to occupy that space. “I try to gradually introduce people out of the silence and bring them in gently,” Nevin explains. He’s found clever ways to simulate that silence. When solo duties pass from one instrument to another on “Grasp at Nothing,” there’s a moment where only the rhythm section is present, and we get a breather from the busy melodies. Often, Nevin flips the rhythm section on its head, and instead utilizes the treble voices to set the mood while piano or drums take on improvisational forms. “Sometimes that is totally an option where the horns play a rhythmic pattern and the bass and drums can be free. Sometimes as a trio Sam Harris will carry the music on piano and we can flow in and out.”
Although the voice of Shakespeare is often present when breaking down the meaning of his song titles, it’s actually a childhood friend of Nevin’s that influences him most. Jonathan Creasy, an Ireland-via-California poet and musician, has been collaborating with Nevin for decades. Similar to how the song titles on Tenderness is Silent act as clues for the album’s deeper meaning, Creasy’s poetry contains clues about what the JFund piece will end up being about. Creasy had written much of the work while in the high desert of Marfa, Texas – a place that has been a wealth of creativity for dozens of artists.
Jon has given me the license to remove things, add things, and create my interpretation of the text. He’s been very sparse in telling me what this means and what that means. He said ‘I’m interested in your interpretation of it.’ So the narrative I’m creating is my vision, or my take on what they’re about. Ultimately I want them to be songs.
One Creasy poem in particular seems to be the basis for the upcoming work. “Songbirds of Cergy” is about having a story to tell, but not being able to tell it. Written in the wake of Creasy’s mother’s passing, a woman who Nevin knew well, it contains the phrase “you song-less bird, without throat to carry.” Having already inspired the track of the same name on Tenderness, these words continue to inform the vastness of ideas in Nevin’s mind.
The burning question here remains: How do you take words on a page and make them into music? Nevin has a very practical way of doing this.
I’m taking each poem and reading it a lot of times… reading it out loud slow and fast, trying to imagine in my head what I would be trying to say if I had written them. I’ve been taking a line and trying to sing or play to it and to find the rhythms and cadences. I’m like a scientist in a lab with exploding test tubes.
Nevin sells himself short here. Sure, he hasn’t worked with this large of a word set before. But his experience translating literature into jazz on Tenderness was perfect prep work for what’s going on here.
Still, the JFund piece is adding elements he’s unfamiliar with. For the first time, he’s begun to seek a collaborator who sings instead of the bass/drums/piano trio he’s been working with since college. “Even though I don’t write for voice, I think the voice is the most powerful thing in music. Everyone connects to its obvious human power,” he says.
Meditating on and honoring Creasy’s words is difficult to do in a place as noisy as Brooklyn, but Nevin finds little pieces of solitude where he least expects it.
There are a lot of weird parts to composing in solitude. Sometimes I’ll be on the subway reading the lines over and over again, and something clicks. Then I’ll go into a room where I’m teaching a kid “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and one lyric suddenly makes more sense. That kind of space and solitude I’m writing about is sort of a fantasy. I’m drawn to it sort of because of its exoticism. You’re imagining this place, but it’s a fantasy for me.
This “place” Nevin mentions may be a reflection of Creasy’s visit to Marfa. And it’s possible, however strange, that Creasy is instilling those feelings in Nevin. If that free and open space is something to be desired, it’s also possible that the nuances in the poetry are telling Nevin a more detailed account of Creasy’s journey in the Texan desert.
After all, it was long before JFund that Nevin became interested in the idea of solitude. Another one of his main influences, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, has been quoted praising the benefits of alone time. “There’s a video where they ask Tarkovsky what his advice is for young artists, and he said ‘You have to learn to be alone.’ So these deep feelings come from quiet.” Even in New York where quiet is sparse, this is sage advice.
Nevin doesn’t want the piece to be the musical equivalent of Creasy’s existential meditations in Marfa. He wants it to be different for anyone that has the pleasure of listening. “I don’t want it to feel like people are just listening to a bunch of songs about a pretentious person that they can’t relate to. I want to make it feel human.”
Speaking of being human, Nevin is a wonderful example of artist as human: confident that he knows his calling, but wary of inflating his ego. Still, receiving JFund is a boost of confidence that many people need in their career. “Somebody wants me to write music. Somebody is paying me to do that. It gives me a sense of confidence with what I’m capable of.” JFund is that extra push Nevin needs to take his work to the next level. It’s not an easy task representing words with music or describing a complex emotion using jazz, but it’s heartening to know that someone is up to the task.