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Dream Steppin by Mark Elf

You have to give Mark Elf high marks for gumption. Defying the odds, he continues to self-produce his own CD’s, garner high praise from the jazz press, climb to the top of the Gavin charts and receive repeated airplay on jazz radio stations throughout the U.S. A virtual one-man record production company, he writes the composition, reserves the studio time, hires the musicians, generates the publicity, books his own club dates...and continues to perform inspiring music that, needless to say, pleases hard-core jazz enthusiasts and the general public alike. How he finds the time and energy to do it is a mystery. But I would suspect that his love of the music continues to motivate him. Even in the liner notes, he implies as much when he remarks upon his professional stasis after September 11. Tellingly, September 11 eventually was the stimulus he needed to record again, putting aside his plans for a sabbatical from recording. That defiant New York attitude resulting from the attacks, epitomized by the firefighter who told Osama bin Laden to "kiss my Irish ass," affected Mark Elf as well. He remarks that "I would not allow terror to change my life." Rather than causing disorientation, the September 11 attacks focused his creativity. If the effect on Mark Elf was such, it is reasonable to expect more outpourings of resulting artistic statements in the near future as well.

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.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Elf
  • CD Title: Dream Steppin
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Unknown
  • Musicians: Dream Steppin’, Too Marvelous For Words, Loved Again, Griff’s Riff, Oye DNA, Ballad 2000, Rhymin’ For Simon, Blues To The Left, America, Cheek To Cheek, Pregnant Chad Blues, Have You Met Miss Jones, Pregnant Chad Blues (alternate take)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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