Trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Andy Laster, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Tom Rainey all became ensconced in the so-called New York downtown scene during the early '90s, and they truly collaborated on Souvenir, the debut disc by the New and Used quintet, with everyone contributing compositions to the effort. The CD is, in fact, a fine keepsake of the era's downtown sound at its most broadly appealing. This is more tightly constructed than much of the music generally equated with the post-Coltrane avant-garde, and has relatively few touchstones in the previous New York loft scene; no Coleman-esque harmolodicism, or even links to the earlier work of another true collaborative, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And certainly not Marsalis-styled post-bop. Instead, New and Used practiced an almost third stream-flavored knotty blend of composition and improvisation that jumped all over the stylistic map, rigorously arranged but with an organic sense of flow, and with Feldman's violin introducing a chamberesque element. Things get off to a jumping start, with Douglas' invigorating "Slow Boat to Mechanicsville" (anything but slow through much of its duration, really). Also arranged a bit later by Douglas for the large ensemble Orange Then Blue, this remains one of the trumpeter's most memorable compositions, even after everything he accomplished over the intervening years.
But it would be a mistake to single out "Slow Boat" as something head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on Souvenir; there is much excitement mixed with subtlety, beauty, and grace in all of the music here. Feldman's agitated "Trifecta" is almost a companion piece to "Slow Boat," while Driscoll's spacious title tune has an elegiac and ruminative tone at times, balanced carefully with more assertive, nearly swinging passages. Rainey proves himself an effective composer as well on his contribution "Safe at Home," which finds the players slowly building their independent gestures into a combined all-out assault; with its rolling percussive climax, this is some of the most free jazz music on the CD. As a composer, Laster is right at home with this group, which is ideally suited to his paradoxically loose yet complex writing style (Laster's "Hagia Sophia" is, in fact, also present on the first album by his band Hydra). With all the layering, counterpoint, and blurring of soloist and accompanist roles, there are few opportunities in Souvenir for the musicians to make lengthy solo statements. Nonetheless, Douglas and Feldman do particularly fine jobs in the spotlight, and all the musicians' individual personalities come through even in the scored passages. Souvenir is a worthy introduction to the music of these talented New Yorkers whose best years were yet to come. And with Douglas' later growth into a major jazz force to be reckoned with, it's interesting to revisit some of his earliest work of true distinction, although New and Used was certainly a vehicle for more than the trumpeter alone.