If we are the sum of our experiences, then Mark Feldman represents an exceptional aggregate. The classically trained violinist is closely associated with the New York Downtown scene, where there seems to be few, if any, musical boundaries. He may be best known for collaborations with artists like John Zorn, Dave Douglas and John Abercrombie, but look into his past and you'll find fusion work with percussionist Trilok Gurtu, country music with Loretta Lynn, and reggae with Sly and Robbie.
His ECM debut leans closer to the new music/improvised work of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier's Abaton (ECM, 2003) trio with cellist Erik Friedlander. But with a more conventional piano/bass/drums rhythm section and Feldman's broad purview, it's a more integrated mix of jazz and classical aesthetics.
The 23-minute "Arcade opens What Exit, a mix of cued figures and open-ended improvisations that finds pianist John Taylor, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tom Rainey breaking down into various subsets. Taylor in particular stands out with a level of abstraction we rarely hear from the harmonically dense but typically less abstruse pianist. Jormin, who is also classically trained, fits Feldman's unbound approach perfectly; he's the first voice to emerge from Rainey's DeJohnette-like cymbal work at the opening of the piece. Feldman's virtuosity has never been more evidentor better integrated in service of an ensemble. He creates a repetitive pulse over Taylor's dark chords that gradually fade, along with Rainey's cymbal work, into a more brooding and spacious section where he builds his solo with painstaking care.
Rainey, best known for his longstanding association with altoist Tim Berne, demonstrates a generally lighter touch here. His understated brushwork on the lyrical "Father Demo Square often suggests more than it states. His dynamic work on the schizophrenic "Ink Pin is more typical. He supports a complex set of cued figures ranging from serpentine frenzy to brief passages of faux-country swing, separated by moments of silence and, again, various subsets of the quartet. There's so much going on in this brief five-minute tune, but while the line between form and freedom is sometimes obscured, there's always a clear sense of intention.
The quartet explores a remarkable range. In lesser hands, the collage-like rhythmic shifts and complex thematic passages might feel unfocused, but here they always make sense. Feldman's tone is robust, brimming with ideas but always bearing a strong narrative sense that interacts deeply with his bandmates. Both his and Taylor's solos on the more rhythmically straightforward "Maria NuÅˆes are high points of a set that's inspired from start to finish. Jormin, an equally strong soloist, makes for an incredibly elastic and responsive rhythm team with Rainey for this, their first encounter.
From the dark beauty of "Cadence to the episodic idiosyncrasy of the title track's blend of tight arrangement and expansive freedom, What Exit is a stunning debut from a group that hopefully won't be just a one-time affair.
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Personnel: Mark Feldman: violin; John Taylor: piano; Anders Jormin: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.