Elf includes a solo performance of "America," which happens to be the patriotic number best suited to jazz improvisation because of the beauty of its chord changes. If there’s a doubt, Elf lays it to rest by ever-so-slightly altering the modulations in a broken-chord rhythmless approach. And in a testament to how quickly events can overcome the production process, Elf includes his "Pregnant Chad Blues" (remember them?), not once but twice, on Dream Steppin’, the second take being so good that he closes the CD with it.
Other than those topical references, Elf’s CD continues in his proven approach of including a few standards, a few original compositions and tributes to his friends, the jazz radio announcers. Indeed, I learned that even Key West has its own jazz radio station, as "Rhymin’ For Simon" is dedicated to announcer Simon Hendrix at WKEY.
But one thing on Dream Steppin’ threw me for a loop. A rhythm guitar seems to back up Elf, but a quick look at the liner notes reveals that Elf is playing in a trio and that, yes, he overdubbed the rhythm guitar part himself. But the chords he eases in behind his own bop-lined solo of "Dream Steppin’" are so attuned to the spirit of the improvisation that one would think that it occurs live at the same time. The same thing happens on "Griff’s Riff," a laid-back blues on which Elf appears without effort while he improvises, his stretched-out tones backing himself up once again.
Elf has put together a like-minded trio consisting of musicians he has worked with successfully in the past: Neal Miner on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. All three perform melodically, such as Miner’s quote from "Moody’s Mood For Love" on "Too Marvelous For Words" or Nash’s cleanly articulated trading of eights with Elf on "Griff’s Riff."
Once again, Elf proves that even though he can nail the quick-moving bop lines with crisp fluidity, his harmonic sense is acute as well. "Ballad 2000" becomes a musical reverie, the four-note melodic phrases resolving into broad and warm chords of ninths with internal whole-tone intervals. And "Have You Met Miss Jones," performed alone as is "America," involves Elf’s self-accompaniment as he alternates melody with walking lines on the lower strings. The simultaneity of the feat is such that it’s hard to believe one person can create a virtual guitar duo with the use of just two hands.
Mark Elf, despite all of the business-related challenges he overcomes, nonetheless continues to entertain listeners with his considerable technique that allows for difficult lines that make a statement, balladic sensitivity, wordless humor and an apparent ease that results from over 30 years of paying his dues.