John Coltrane's "Countdown, like Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, is a brief, emotional and enduring classic. Guitarist Mark Elf makes this tune the heart of Liftoff. Elf, who played last month at Flushing Town Hall with bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Quincy Davis, was an exuberant performer who scatted along with his solos on up-tempo tunes, played fluidly on ballads, and was humorous and engaging throughout.
The challenging title cut is based on "Countdown, but it also contains discernible elements of its source, Miles Davis' "Tune Up. Elf dives in at top speed, sprinting through the chord changes as though pursued by demons, while pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash provide a solid foundation beneath him. At the show Elf described how difficult a tune this was to play, then nailed it just as he did in the studio, maintaining dexterity and harmony without sacrificing coherence. The version of Bob Hope's theme song, "Thanks for the Memory, is as mellow as a last-call reminiscence, Elf's bluesy guitar and Hazeltine's thoughtful piano setting the mood.
Elf switches to the rarely heard baritone guitar for "Deception Blues, another grooving variation on "Countdown where the rhythm section, led by Hazeltine's flawless solo, drives the melody. The Latin jazz piece "Chuy's Challenge, with guest percussionist Daniel Sadownick, has more dynamic soloing by Elf and Hazeltine, and the guitarist gives "I've Never Been In Love Before a nice light bounce in its step.
Washington's on-point pizzicato complements Elf's baritone on "How Low Can You Go, and the two deep voices splendidly trade fours. Nash's understated but effective drumming meshes perfectly with the guitarist's licks on "Fundingsland Waltz. And "Left Hand Corner, inspired by Clifford Brown's "Daahoud, is another first-rate straight-ahead tune with Latin highlights. Elf's playing and composing is uniformly excellent and, with a stellar rhythm section behind him, Liftoff is a total listening pleasure.
Track Listing: Liftoff; Thanks For the Memory; Deception Blues; Chuy's Challenge; I've Never Been In Love Before; How Low Can You Go; Fundingsland Waltz; Left Hand Corner; Deception Blues; Liftoff (Alternate Take).
Personnel: Mark Elf: guitars;
David Hazeltine: piano;
Peter Washington: bass;
Lewis Nash: drums;
Daniel Sadownick: percussion (4).