In an age when the marketing of images and attitudes often takes precedence over purely musical considerations, the quiet success of guitarist Mark Elf is impressive indeed. During the mid-90s, defying conventional wisdom, Elf took business matters into his own hands and founded Jen Bay Jazz. Since then the label has released six recordings under his name, all of which garnered considerable airplay on jazz stations throughout the country, frequently landing at the top of the Gavin Jazz Chart. Elf’s triumphs as a recording artist occurred without resorting to tricks, gimmicks, or musical compromises of any kind. Mixing jazz standards with his own compositions and a variety of tunes from the American Popular Songbook, he has consistently delivered stimulating, straight-ahead jazz in various small group combinations.
The soon-to-be-released Swingin’ is another engrossing chapter in Elf’s recording history. Along with bassist Robert Hurst, pianist Aaron Goldberg, and the drums of Winard Harper, the disc features the guitarist in trio, quartet, and solo settings. “Gambinie’s Bambinies,” a jaunty, medium-tempo tune written for the children of WBFO’s music director Bert Gambini, typifies the threesome’s cohesiveness. Amidst Hurst’s solid, modified walking and Harper’s subtle snare and cymbal accents, Elf starts his solo by cagily playing variations of a single phrase over the course of several measures before settling on an equally deliberate course, letting nearly every note ring with a ripe fullness. As the second chorus begins, the bass and drums swing harder and his lines becomes more pronounced, incorporating blues inflections. Over Elf’s chords and Harper’s brushwork, Hurst follows with a satisfying turn that inserts mini melodies into a coherent framework.
During the up-tempo “Blowins’ For The Cohen’s,” one of the two quartet tracks, Elf seems positively energized by Goldberg’s presence, offering some of his most inspired work of the set. His single-note, bebop oriented lines dart about with alacrity, as Harper offers encouragement by coaxing rhythms from virtually every part of his drum set. Beginning with an imitation of Elf’s last phrase, Goldberg’s solo surges forward and never lets up for a moment, integrating riff-like passages which impel the music to the point of near-delirium. Using a bow, Hurst maintains the heat during his brief turn, setting the stage for Harper’s salvo. Initially contrasting high and low sounds, such as the hard, resonant clicking of the butt end of the stick on the rim (while the other end stays on the drum head) against beats on the snare drum (with the snares off) and bass, the drummer concludes with a flashy, well-executed single stroke roll.
The disc closes with Elf’s solo performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic song, “It Might As Well Be Spring.” His rubato treatment expertly combines single notes and chordal passages, with brief, interesting digressions that magnify, rather than detract from the beauty of the melody.
Personnel: Mark Elf--guitar; Robert Hurst--bass; Winard Harper--drums; Aaron Goldberg--piano.