Mark Feldman: Taking an Eclectic Path


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Violinist Mark Feldman started out in Chicago playing classical music and bar gigs before moving on to the Nashville scene. He emerged in New York's "downtown" circle with the likes of Arcado String Trio, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and composer-saxophonist John Zorn. His expressive, classically tinged technique was also sought for studio work with pop acts and film scores. For the last 10 years, he's been integral to guitarist John Abercrombie's quartet and has recorded several discs as a leader. Feldman works in duo with his wife, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and the two also co-lead a quartet. This month [June, 2010] they are co-curators at The Stone, performing in many of their projects and presenting some musical compatriots.

All About Jazz: You were in Europe the other week, then Pennsylvania, and off to Australia: which projects have you been working with recently?

Mark Feldman: I was in Switzerland, and we did five nights in this theatre in Lausanne called Theatre de Vidy. We did a double concert each night for five nights. The first set we did me and Sylvie in duo and then the second set we did our new quartet, which is me, Sylvie, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums. That's from our new record on Intakt [To Fly To Steal (2010)].

And then I went to Spain and played with Masada String Trio—two concerts in Spain. Then I went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and played with this German pianist, who is a visiting guest professor there, a German pianist named Hans Ludemann. Then I'm going to Australia to play with Abercrombie and that's a group with Abercrombie, [drummer] Joey Baron, and it's usually Thomas Morgan lately (it used to be Marc Johnson) but now Drew Gress is doing it sometimes—[so this will be] with Drew Gress [on bass].

Then I'm flying to Europe from Australia and doing 14 one-nighters in duo with Sylvie. So I'm kind of in a little busy period.

AAJ: Has that been typical lately, or is it fluctuating?

MF: Well it seems like I have a certain number of periods like that during the year. But they seem to run together like that, and then I'll be pretty much not busy for a while. I don't hardly play in New York.

AAJ: Does it get difficult jumping between all these different projects, or has it become second nature for you at this point?

MF: Since I'm working in just a handful of projects that I work in quite a lot, I know the material pretty well. I'm not doing too many. I'm doing a couple of things that are one-offs with people; there's a couple of Canadian people that I play with once in a while, where I don't really know the material. But I pretty much know the material between the Abercrombie and the Zorn, two groups of his: Bar Kokhba and Masada String Trio. And then the stuff I do with Sylvie, so it's not that hard, no.

AAJ: So you've cut back on a lot of the one-offs and sideman work you had been doing in the past?

MF: Well, in the '90s I was doing tons of sideman stuff, yeah. I sort of whittled it down, to less things. I still have some different projects that were interesting. I did a few concerto projects and stuff like that, where people had written me pieces. I did some chamber music stuff. But I'm not running out doing the same kind of stuff I did in the '90s, no.

AAJ: Do you do much session work in the studio?

MF: You know, I used to do a lot. I used to work for Gene Orloff, who was a big concertmaster. I used to do [arranger] Don Sebesky sessions and [arranger] Arif Mardin sessions; but not anymore. But a lot of that work I used to do is really finished. I used to do Diana Ross sessions, and The Manhattan Transfer, I used to do all these big studio productions and record acts. But that's kind of done, I guess, a lot of it.

AAJ: Is that just because people don't want to pay for that any more, or aesthetically have people moved away from that?

MF: I don't know, I don't know. But I did a lot of records like that, quite a lot. But that kind of stopped, wound down after September 11th. I used to do some of those big film scores too. I was in the backup violin section. But that really wound down too. But everything seems to work out somehow. That winds down and something else winds up.

AAJ: I guess I've always been curious, how did you first come to New York after doing the whole Nashville studio thing?

MF: Well, when I came to New York, it was quite a while ago, I was about 30 years old, in 1986. I went to the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada for that kind of summer program. It was a great program, [bassist] Dave Holland was running it and there was a lot of great people there. When I was in Nashville, I sort of became friends too with Jimmy Raney, the great be-bop guitarist; the late Jimmy Raney. And so I used to go up to Louisville and play with Jimmy, and then I went to a couple of these different clinic things. Then I used to drive up to IU [Indiana University] and took some lessons with David Baker.

I was really in Nashville at the wrong [time]; it wasn't a great place for a young man in those days and I really wanted to play creative music. So when I was 30 years old, I felt like it was still a good moment, [and] I just packed up everything and moved out there. I owned this little house like 12 miles from the Kentucky line, and I sold the house and moved to New York. I didn't really know anybody. I wound up playing—there were a lot of street bands when I moved to New York—and I got in this street band circuit. People would actually call you and say we're going to do an afternoon hit at Bowling Green and an evening hit in Times Square. It was like busking, you know. Someone would have a generator, it would usually be the drummer and they'd have a little generator. So I was doing these street bands and they were really like be-bop bands, that's when I really learned the most be-bop tunes.

Then I got a job in the Darien Dinner Theater, and I was playing a musical, eight shows a week for really bad bread. Then somehow I got a call from [bassist/producer Bill] Laswell to do these string sections, and that was the first thing I did that kind of got me going. That was the Sly and Robbie record [Rhythm Killers, Island, 1987]. Laswell did a whole series of records with string sections, with like [keyboardist] Bernie Worrell and [bassist] Bootsy Collins and [singer] Afrika Bambaataa and it was usually [pianist] Karl Berger, [who] did the arrangements. I was playing, I think, lead violin on most of those.

And at the same time I was going to this rehearsal band in the West Village. It was kind of like an avant-garde rehearsal band run by Walter Thompson, and [trumpeter] Herb Robertson was in it, among other people. That was during the days when [saxophonist] Tim Berne had his sextet with Joey and Herb and all them on Columbia, like late '80s. Herb knew that [bassist] Mark Dresser and [cellist] Hank Roberts were starting a string trio and they were actually auditioning violin players, and so I went in for a real audition. It seems funny now that you would audition. So that became the Arcado String Trio, and we did a bunch of records on JMT, which became Winter & Winter, and did a lot of tours. That was really my introduction to the whole—what did they call it back then, "avant jazz," they used to call it—scene. It kind of centered around the old Knit on Houston street, informally.

So that was that whole thing with Mark Dresser, Hank and Tim and Herb Robertson, and I sort of became in their orbit a little, and that was the late '80s. But the first year here was pretty rough, let me tell you that.

AAJ: I imagine, going from that regimented hierarchical scene to something like the way things were here.

MF: It was also I was working so much in Nashville and then I came here. The first year, it was the first time I got audited by the IRS too [laughs].

Mark Feldman (left), with Masada String Trio

AAJ: They didn't believe you?

MF: They didn't quite believe what was going on: from working to no work. I didn't report all those quarters I made in Times Square [laughs].

AAJ: Like you said, you've whittled down to certain projects that have become kind of enduring—like Masada String Trio, and obviously the duos with Sylvie.

MF: And the quartet with John Abercrombie, that's been over 10 years. It started out I was added on to his trio with [drummer] Adam Nussbaum and [organist] Dan Wall. The first record was with those guys with me and [saxophonist] Joe Lovano and [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler, and that was called Open Land [ECM, 1999]. That was a nice record.

It's not that I decided to do that, it was just sort of like that was the way things unfolded. Those groups got more busy and more successful, so I became less available for a lot of the other things I was doing. I didn't plan anything out: say "this is what I want to do," or "I want to work with those groups," or "I have this kind of goal." I just kind of wanted to get by and that was the way it worked out.

I stayed in New York all these years and played on a lot of records and went to Europe a lot. I had these concertos written for me that I did with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, twice. Then once with another orchestra in Einhoven [Holland] [written] by Guus Janssen, and it was a violin concerto with improvising violin also. With the WDR band [of Koln, Germany], Bill Dobbins wrote me a concerto for the violin and jazz orchestra, and I did that with the WDR band. That was actually a tour; we went all over.

Then I won the Alpert Award in the Arts [2007], which was a big thing for me. After I won that award, I was able finally to get a good instrument for the first time in my life. That really made a big difference; it kind of changed my direction. Even a few years before [that], but for about the last nine years or so, I stopped playing electric violin, and now I just play through a microphone. I went back to my acoustic roots a little bit.

AAJ: Does that necessitate a different kind of approach, a different dynamic range?

MF: I can only play with people that have a certain dynamic range. Because if it's too loud, then I can't play with a microphone.

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