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Mark Feldman: His Own Music, His Own Sound, His Own Aesthetic

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I used to be a fiddle player who played through a guitar amp. I used to try to copy saxophone licks. I used to use no vibrato. I used to do that kind of jazz-violin thing. But you know, I am of European descent. I am a violinist. I think the legacy of the violin is part of my picture.
Mark FeldmanIn his twenty years in New York City, violinist Mark Feldman's played a dizzying number of gigs and sessions with trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Uri Caine, saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Billy Hart, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Mark Dresser, and of course, saxophonist John Zorn, with whom Feldman has had a particularly fruitful association.



He was a founding member of the seminal ensembles Arcado String Trio and New & Used, collaborates regularly with his wife, pianist/composer Sylvie Courvoisier (interpreting Zorn material and doing their own compositions) and is a current member of guitarist John Abercrombie's band. This Downtown-improv scene ubiquity (which has coexisted with Feldman's session work with pop artists like Sheryl Crow and Diana Ross) can be seen as the third geography-based period of Feldman's career as a musician. The first was in Chicago, his hometown, where he played in the Civic Orchestra while simultaneously doing bar gigs playing rockabilly and western swing and studying jazz improvisation with local sax man Joe Daley; the second was his life as a Nashville-based hired gun who toured extensively with Loretta Lynn and Ray Price and recorded with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and George Jones.

All of which makes Feldman a remarkably experienced musician, and all of which makes it the more surprising that What Exit, his 2006 CD on ECM Records, is only the second recording under his name alone (the first being Music For Violin Alone, released on the Tzadik label back in 1995). "I'm not so fast, Feldman told me, but What Exit was worth waiting for. Ostensibly Feldman's attempt at doing a "jazz record (meaning, among other things, that its eight Feldman-composed pieces are packed with improvisation and that Feldman's playing with the standard-jazz rhythm section lineup of piano, bass and drums), this is a CD that doesn't really resemble any other recording I've ever heard. Feldman remains a stunning musician; his European, vibrato-drenched tone is as affecting as ever, even as it defiantly breaks the jazz taboo that proscribes vibrato. Certainly, the music straddles the jazz and new-classical worlds, but it is, to its credit, its own animal, and the CD is one of the best of last year.



Feldman's thoughtful, earnest and self-deprecating to a fault. He's also, whether he intends to be or not, one of the most hilarious people I've ever heard. The same words you are about to read are, spoken in Feldman's slightly nasal cadence and with his impeccable timing, painfully funny. That doesn't make anything he says facetious, however. I spoke with him about the new recording, his thoughts on jazz and what a "jazz record is supposed to be, and his work as a leader and with Sylvie Courvoisier, John Abercrombie, and John Zorn.

All About Jazz: You've got a new record out under your own name called What Exit; this is a quartet recording on the ECM label with bassist Anders Jormin, pianist John Taylor and drummer Tom Rainey. This is a record of your own compositions, and I think it's remarkable.

You've recorded and played with so many people in, for want of a better term, the New York improv community, so the first thing that interests me—before we discuss the individual pieces—is the lineup you chose for this record. This is a quartet setting and, at least superficially, could be called a "jazz configuration. You've certainly played in many settings without a drummer at all, so tell me why you chose this lineup in terms of instrumentation and beyond that, in terms of personnel.

Mark Feldman: I had written some of the material before I thought about which musicians to use. Maybe I could just backtrack here and say that, as far as jazz violin goes, there were a couple of records that were important to me when I was younger. One was Jean-Luc Ponty's Sunday Walk [Saba, 1967], which I think had [pianist] Wolfgang Dauner, that bassist whose name I'm forgetting—he passed away [Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen] and [drummer] Daniel Humair. And then there was Zbigniew Seifert's Man of the Light [1976, MPS] with [drummer] Billy Hart, [pianist] Joachim Kühn and, ah—I'm forgetting the bassist again [Cecil McBee].



Anyway, these records were important to me and I think, in my mind, I always wanted to make a piano-bass-and-drums record, what I considered kind of a jazz record with a rhythm section. I think I wanted to make one without another horn because for twenty years now, I've been pretty active as a sideman and have always been playing in groups with other horns.

And I think my music has a certain sensibility, so that when I thought about bass players, drummers and pianists, these were the people that came to mind. Tom Rainey came to mind because he can play anything, and I'd worked with him quite a bit. He's got a huge jazz background, but also a contemporary improv background, and he's a great reader. I needed people who could play out of the modern mainstream and contemporary jazz tradition, but that were also great readers; they had to be able to read well. And I felt I had a sympathetic feeling for these people from listening to their music. That's not so specific, I know. I guess they were just players that I loved and I always wanted to make a record with this instrumentation. That's more succinct!

I mean, basically, they were all players that I really liked. And there are a lot of players that I like, of course. But then you have a certain kind of music that requires a certain combination of skills. In this case, it did. And that starts to narrow it down. You might say, "Oh, I love this bassist, but the last time I was on a gig with him, he had to play arco in thumb position and I still loved him, but I didn't love that moment. And I've got a lot of arco in thumb position, so that whittles that list down. And so on. And then when it came to that point of whittling the list down, I had it pretty much down to these people. Luckily, everyone I asked said yes, so I got my first choices.


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