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Mark Elf

Guitarist, Mark Elf, is dedicated to celebrating his music, his career and his life. For more than 30 years, Elf has written songs, played guitar, taught and recorded music. Now head of his own label at www.jenbayjazz.com, Mark Elf is glad to be alive, and glad to be doing what he does, in a voice that’s all his own.

JazzReview: I first became aware of you when I had the good fortune to review Glad To Be Back. I was so impressed with your work, I began searching the web to find out more about you. You are everywhere-in magazines, on the radio, just everywhere.

Mark Elf: The radio people have played me tremendously over the last ten years. One of my records finished in the top ten on National Jazz Radio and I’ve had 8 consecutive number one records now. I just hit the National High Jazz debut at #13. I guess that’s the whole purpose of being on radio and doing interviews, so other folks will hear about me.

JazzReview: Your new album, Lift Off is entirely different than Glad To Be Back and it’s quite expansive. You begin the album with the title track. It’s like guitar on speed. How do you do that? How do you manage to keep your fingers flowing and on track at that rate of speed?

Mark Elf: (chuckling) I guess the best way to answer that is: I practice a lot.

JazzReview: That’s what sets you apart-- your ability to handle that speed with precision.

Mark Elf: I put a lot of time in on that particular composition. John Coltrane practiced that chord sequence for the better part of two years, as I was told by Jimmy Heath. I put quite a few hundred hours into that. It is not something you just do. It’s something you can’t just sit down and skate over. And you can’t lose your concentration for a second. As I say, I practiced that chord sequence over and over and over again.

JazzReview: Your group keeps up with you beautifully. It’s easy to tell you’ve been together for quite a while. How did you choose them as your group?

Mark Elf: The reality is, they are quintessential sidemen. They are all very talented individuals. David Hazeltine has his own band. Even Lewis Nash does have his own group. The only one who hasn’t yet had his own record is Peter Washington. But they are all stellar sidemen. We did that record date cold. In other words, they are such great readers and such great players, they can come in to a studio and just go to work.

JazzReview: These guys are all at the top of their game-all the time. And Lewis Nash, I see his name everywhere, too.

On "Deception Blues, written by yourself, you do two different versions, creating different feelings with each take. It’s slower paced on the first recording with you playing baritone guitar. But, it picks up speed the second time you do it for this album.

Mark Elf: On the first track, it’s the baritone guitar and it’s the first time I’m playing it on any recording. The second recording is the regular guitar. The baritone is basically a six string bass. It’s basically the same thing-people just use different names for it.

JazzReview: Many people don’t play the baritone. Is it more difficult than the regular guitar?

Mark Elf: The only thing that changes with that is a slight technique adjustment. The strings have less tension. But other than that, there isn’t much difference between baritone and regular. But when you’re playing them, they feel completely different, of course. The strings are thick-it’s very different in that respect. The tuning is the same so it’s not like learning a different tuning manner.

JazzReview: You come back on this album with a Frank Loesser tune, a solemn groove, "I’ve Never Been In Love Before." How did you choose to insert this tune into your mostly self-written songs?

Mark Elf: In that tune I inserted the chord progression to "Lift Off," creating a different sound.

JazzReview: You also come back with "Fundingsland Waltz," a smooth, gentle tune, giving a nice variety for listening moods.

Mark Elf: Well, I try to do that on all my records, actually. I like to add a little variety to keep the listener involved and interested throughout the whole disc. I try to have a ballad. I try to have a Latin theme. I have a waltz and maybe a couple different swing tempos.

JazzReview: You did that very well. Then, you threw in "Thanks For The Memories," a nice comfortable tune filled with memories-mostly Bob Hope.

Mark Elf: Oh, yeah, that was the Bob Hope theme song. As I said, I like to keep each album interesting.

JazzReview: I mentioned I first became aware of you when I heard Glad To Be Back. You are a living miracle. No wonder you felt so much gratitude towards all those people you composed that album for. How are you doing now, almost three years later?

Mark Elf: Good. I have no signs of cancer.

JazzReview: That is good news. I’ve read that you have played with such giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, the Heath Brothers, Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis-and many more. Did you learn something from each of these musicians?

Mark Elf: Absolutely. Very much so. Each of them taught me something. Lots of different tunes with Jimmy Heath-We played a bunch of different music; just watching him taught me. Clark Terry, too. Each one of them, more than the music itself, the way they conducted themselves on the bandstand.

JazzReview: Over the years, is there anyone you simply fell into the groove with-someone who was on the same page and you just felt natural with?

Mark Elf: To be honest, it was like that with Clark. It was like that with Jimmy Heath. It was like that with many, many musicians.

JazzReview: I think that speaks something of you-that you are so versatile, you can feel comfortable with many different musicians.

Mark Elf: It was really great to have that kind of feeling with them.

JazzReview: Right. I read a while back, while you performed "Boppin'" at the Blue Note, your guitar strings melted under the heat of the lights and you had to quickly change to metal strings. How did you manage to keep the flow of the moment while having to change your strings?

Mark Elf: Well, they didn’t actually melt. They went out of tune because of the heat so I had to use the steel string guitar. I just reached over and replaced the guitar I had been using with the steel strings. The band was playing so that kept the flow while I switched guitars.

JazzReview: I’ve also heard it said that many musicians become institutionalized and lose their distinction. After all these years, how do you manage to keep your own ‘voice’ without becoming like everyone else?

Mark Elf: The most important thing in music is having your own sound-your own sound print. The main thing is, you can’t just say, "I’m going to have my own sound," and just have it that way. It doesn’t just come. It’s something you develop over years of playing. You know, when I had those influences, I decided I wanted to have that high ability to create that quality of sound. But I had to develop my own natural sound. Of course, we all have our idols and we start out imitating that person. Some get stuck, saying, "I want to be like Wes Montgomery, or I want to be like Charlie Parker." But, we must develop beyond that, and become our own person. In jazz, one of the most important things is to be yourself. You should have a sound that when someone hears you on the radio or on a record, they know exactly who it is.

Of course, for me, it has to be more than that. It has to be musical, pleasant to listen to. Even if it’s out to lunch, it’s so out that you know who it is because of the way the musician is playing. Maybe that person doesn’t have a lot of people come listen to him ‘cause it hurts their ears, but he has that voice. The most important thing in this business is to have your own sound, your own identity. To give you an example of that, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten, and especially from one of my heroes, was when Clark Terry called me and said, "Man, I was traveling in the car and heard this guitar and within two or three measures, two or three bars, I knew it was you." And he said, "Man, that was a smokin’ thing." I said, "Man, I can’t tell you how great that is, especially from you, someone I admire and whose music I can also tell, within two or three bars, who it is."

And, Miles loved him. When I hear Miles play, I hear some Clark Terry in Miles. Oh yeah, Miles loved Clark Terry.

JazzReview: Very interesting. Which brings us to: Who was your idol? Who brought you into the jazz world?

Mark Elf: There were a string of things that happened. I was studying with a studio guitar player by the name of Ralph Patt. And he gave me some records-Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and some others, to take home.

But what really got me going was, I was 18, working at a Sam Ash store and I always had a guitar in my hand. The saxophone repairman came in one day and said, "Hey, Man, you ever hear of Charlie Parker?" I said, "Who?" He said, "You go over to Sam Goodie’s and buy any Charlie Parker record." And, I did. Oh, I heard Bird and Diz and in fact, I heard him on the radio, the song called "Salt Peanuts" and said, "Oh my gosh! I gotta do that."

That was the capper. I didn’t want to do anything else in my life after I heard that. I knew I wanted to pursue music before that. But that’s the point I was absolutely knocked out.

Then, some years later, Benny Golson told me a story about when he and John (Coltrane) were at the Blue Note: We were doing "Boppin’" at the Blue Note, as a matter of fact, and Benny told me how he and John Coltrane would go visit Bird and Diz up at a theatre. And, they couldn’t believe what they heard. He said, "Mark, we heard that and it was beyond extraordinary."

"We met Charlie Parker out in back of the theatre and John Coltrane carried his horn to the next gig." So, that’s what happened-it was like that for them, too.

Benny asked Charlie Parker what kind of reed he used, or what type of mouthpiece he used. A few weeks later, Benny called Trane. Trane asked him "Did you get the reed?" Benny says, "yes." Trane said, "Did you get the mouthpiece?" Benny said, "Yes." Trane asked, "Did anything happen?" Benny said, "uhh..No." (Elf chuckles-"as if the equipment would make the difference.")

Jazzreview: That’s amazing. Too funny. You write your own songs. Is that something you started out doing?

Mark Elf: The funny thing is, I started out composing back in the 70s and I remember when I tried to write my first song: It was like-I didn’t know how to start so I called Bill Hardman and asked him. You know who he is? -The wonderful, big trumpet player from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I use to work with Will, so I called him and told him, "Man I’m trying to write a tune here. I’m not sure---I got the idea in my head, but just don’t know where to go with it." And he said, "Just write down the stuff you ordinarily play." (another chuckle from Elf as he recounts the simplistic answer to his query). That was my only composition lesson and it was the best one I ever got!

JazzReview: Now, You are the teacher. You teach through books and CDs. And, I hear you teach conversational guitar. Tell me about that.

Mark Elf: What I mean by that is, I teach the practical approach. You can give music lessons and get the scales, the chords and the progressions. Any musician can teach the fundamentals of music. If a student comes to me, I expect them to already know those things. If they don’t, I explain it quickly. But I don’t put a lot of time into that. I try to make them understand that’s only a small part of the equation. Learning the language is very, very important. And it’s how all their predecessors learned. They learned from Charlie Parker, from Bud Powell, from Lester Young, the elements of music. So that’s how I teach, from the point of practical approach.

For instance, instead of giving a guy the scale on a C-7 chord where he goes up and down the scale, I’ll give him an idea or motif on the C scale. He’ll make some music out of that sound. He’s not only learning the notes in that C scale, he’s also learning a melodic statement within that scale. And when he learns many of those melodic statements, hopefully, he’ll expand upon that and make .uhh, it’s like learning a foreign language. You can learn all the nouns and pronouns and parts of speech, but unless you hear and use them in a conversation, you’ll never be able to speak the language. You will end up very stiff if you never practice learning to converse in that language.

That’s how I teach. I try to get my students to make music by practical application.

JazzReview: Is this how you create an interaction with your audience? How you create that electricity?

Mark Elf: That goes without saying. If you’re not making a statement when you’re on stage; if you’re not delivering, what’s the point?

JazzReview: You also have the ability to make your guitar talk-independent of anything else. That shows your degree of skill-that you have almost become one with your instrument.

You also teach online over the Internet. So, people can reach you there-www.markelf.com.

I understand you created your own label so you could be true to yourself in your work. What led you in this direction?

Mark Elf: I think it was out of necessity. There was a time I wished someone had given me a music date and a deal so I could play music, and have a carefree musician’s life where I wouldn’t have to worry about things. I could walk out of the studio and let someone else deal with the other things. But, as time went by, I realized it would be best to have control over my works. Then, I also realized later that there’s nothing a small record company couldn’t do for me that I couldn’t do for myself.

JazzReview: When you’re not creating Mark Elf tunes, who do you listen to?

Mark Elf: I love to listen to Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine.

JazzReview: And when you need to get away from the world of music, what are your favorite escapes?

Mark Elf: I like to fish and I love to play poker-winning, of course. (chuckle)

JazzReview: Jazz has so many sub-categories. If you were forced to put your music into a category-something I hate doing, what category would you be in?

Mark Elf: I don’t like being pigeon holed. But, I’m a mainstream player-bebop style. Most of the places I perform see me that way. And I’m proud of it because it’s one of the most difficult types of music. You can’t shuck and jive on it. But, I don’t want to stay in one area. I care about new things and expanding my position, as most musicians do.

The worst thing is to be in a rut. If musicians didn’t have that feeling they wouldn’t expand.

Thank you, Mark Elf, for this relaxed, informative interview. And thank you for so much great music. It’s definitely worth the visit to www.markelf.com

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Elf
  • Subtitle: Lift Off
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