Contemporary jazz violinists tend to be remarkably versatile musicians. They have to be, as “jazz violin” remains a job description of limited scope and prospects. And so a remarkable jazz violinist such as Mark Feldman has a resume of jaw-dropping variety: studio dates for Sheryl Crow and Diana Ross, Nashville recordings with Johnny Cash and (!) Jimmy Swaggart, premieres of violin concertos by contemporary composers with major orchestras, commissioned compositions for the likes of post-classical groups like the Kronos String Quartet, classical chamber work, post-jazz playing (both improvised and notated) for downtown mogul John Zorn, longstanding membership in a prominent jazz quartet led by guitarist John Abercrombie—need I go on?
What Exit is Mark Feldman’s coming-out party on ECM records, maybe his first truly prominent solo disc, and a statement of intent from a man who can seemingly play anything and, therefore, needs to clarify who he really is as an artist.
First, how very ECM it is. (ECM, for the uninitiated, has been the premiere independent label in jazz since the 1970s, featuring music recorded under the supervision of producer Manfred Eicher with exquisite transparency—often achieving an aching lyricism.) The band is a mixture of European grace and American grit: English pianist John Taylor and Swedish bassist Anders Jormin, together with New York-based Tom Rainey on drums. The repertoire, all Feldman originals, achieves the impressionistic avant-garde that ECM has come to embody in its boldest recordings. Dominated by ballads and brooding atmosphere pieces, What Exit doesn’t skimp on the daring; so it is often “out” without really every being “noisy”—a very ECM virtue.
The recording is typically A-plus. Tom Rainey has never sounded better and more detailed—his cymbal-work coming through with unusual (DeJohnette-ian?) detail and subtlety on his first ECM appearance. Taylor and Jormin are in perfect balance, so that the leader’s violin can be heard in the foreground but without seeming amplified or overmic-ed. As a result, Feldman’s sound comes through as a real string instrument, with the sense of finger-and-bow-on-string present in every piece. Too much violin jazz over the years, perhaps, has been recorded to make the violin seem like little more than a saxophone or trumpet or even a synthesizer—just another melody instrument that can improvise over the changes. Here, Feldman presents a variety of tones and dynamics that suggest how the violin itself sounds in a jazz group.
That said, this recording is a challenge to listeners—which is a bold move for an artist to make on his first major solo statement. It begins with a 23-minute track, “Arcade”, that ranges through several contrasting sections like a new-music concerto. Slowly building from an improvised bass solo through a rising and falling out-groove, there is no proper “melody” until nearly the five-minute mark. Even then, the leader enters with a whispered violin melody that seems to come from around the corner. While the rewards of paying close attention to this track are considerable—Feldman invests the tune with a echoing folk grace and seems to include a whole history of his instrument’s different uses in one soundscape—this is music that can be enjoyed only at full-strength listening. Neither breezy driving music nor pleasant dinner music here. It’s art, baby. Capital A-R-T.
At the same time, this setting—a traditional jazz rhythm section of piano/bass/drums—also suggests a bid for more straight-ahead acceptance of Mark Feldman’s jazz sensibility. “Father Demo Square” is a hunk of swinging mid-tempo jazz that could almost be a tune played by some saxophone player on a Blue Note date. True, it would be an elliptical tune by someone like Wayne Shorter, but what’s wrong with that? “Ink Pin” may be even more fun than that—a series of precise bursts of melody that suggest Feldman’s background in country fiddling as well as jazz. Influences aside, it’s actually a piece of fun music—a rare enough thing no matter the style. Taylor and Feldman duel gamely about a third of the way through, leading to an uptempo sprint that surely gets the blood flowing.
The slower tunes have the virtue of “straight jazz” as well. “Cadence”, for example, benefits from great drumming by Tom Rainey—the kind of steady and even splashy playing that can work terrifically well on a slower jazz recording. “Elegy” starts as a series of long-held double stops for solo violin. Feldman’s intonation and articulation are impeccable, and they set the stage for a tempoless section of free playing that is both lyrical and wide open. “Everafter” also begins with lots of open space—a violin melody accompanied at first by single piano plunks. The track is beautifully—even classically—arranged, so that when the group starts playing more like a jazz band, it is with the deliberate intelligence that only the best improvisers can bring.
There is a way in which What Exit is better track-to-track than as a whole. There’s virtue in every cut, but the album doesn’t feel like a single statement. This is somewhat surprising, given that it features the same four super-talented musicians throughout and they play with unified purpose. But the complete impression of this disc still seems a bit of a “sampler”: a long-form composition, some modern jazz, some classical/jazz playing, free ballads, zany hi-jinx. A tune that feels more focused, the title track, backs away from making a clear statement, being only a few minutes long. It’s a bit frustrating, as “What Exit” combines a sunny melody with a sense of harmonic surprise, then leads you into a section of swing that lets Feldman cut loose with puckish adventure. Jormin plays a spritely solo, then Taylor weaves a Tyner-esque statement. You wish the whole record had pushed harder in this direction, balancing freedom and structure with bolder colors at every turn.
Still, there’s a ton for modern jazz fans to enjoy here, and it is plain that Mark Feldman—having paid his dues a dozen times over—is deserving of the spotlight. ECM has given him a superior opportunity here, with a sparkling but bold trio at his back. The road ahead looks to paved with more good music.