So how does Elf repay the people who offered him moral reassurance and kindness, sight unseen, through his convalescence? He writes songs in their honor, as he has done on his previous recordings. For Dr. Bertrand Guillonneau of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, Elf wrote "Ballad For Bertrand," a slow and affecting song with strong emphasis upon melody, memorable and singable if only there were words. For Eric Allen of KSMF in Ashland, Oregon, there’s "Bossa For Eric A," a driving bossa nova that winds through unanticipated changes allowing for controlled improvisation with an inviting narrative structure. Allen’s cancer was more aggressive than Elf’s, and he sent literature about the subject to the guitarist. For Yancy Carrigan of WESM in Princess Ann, Maryland, there’s "A Fancy For Yancy," a waltz of loping bass lines and jaunty, optimistic attitude. Carrigan told Elf that being treated for prostate cancer was of lesser concern than recovering from face wounds after being shot in Vietnam. Elf gained perspective and wisdom from the health crisis.
But now Elf is back, after helping other musicians garner their own airplay and offering them production tips while he recovered from surgery.
Maybe it’s me, but the music on Elf’s CD seems brighter and more cohesive than that on his past releases. I don’t think it’s me. I think it’s Elf’s choice of sidemen. David Hazeltine, in particular, illuminates the music above the level that would have been attained with a guitar trio because he actually listens to what Elf plays and embellishes it with comping in the same range and with sparkling solos. For example, despite the slow, inviting tempo of "Ballad For Bertrand," it holds together with the combination of Elf’s gorgeous improvisation over Hazeltine’s embellishing chords.... before Hazeltine himself steps forward to develop his own solo of scampering triplets and eighth notes, proving that he knows his Wynton Kelly. The debt to Kelly is even more evident on the next track, "Gaston’s Gate," a medium-tempo blues that Elf wrote with a call-and-response theme, Elf responding with single and then double accents to his own call. Those two numbers make evident the contributions of bassist Peter Washington as he firmly anchors the movement of the glowing ballad and of drummer Lewis Nash as he trades fours with Elf and Hazeltone on the blues.
Beyond the tributes and the joy of return felt by Elf, Glad To Be Back contains purely some exquisitely played and eminently enjoyable music that invites replay. I know that I played "Alfie" several times after the first time I heard it, paying successively more attention each time to the way that Elf develops the tune, using the lower voicings of the guitar to add depth to the chords and filling in rests with embellishing runs that advance the melody.
Ever the fighter, Mark Elf once again has succeeded, this time with serious health-related challenges. His latest victory makes clear that his hard work to carve out a career as a jazz guitarist without the assistance of labels or managers was but a prelude.