Mark Elf has demonstrated over the years the talent and ingenuity necessary to succeed as an indie artist. His last five CDs, released on his own Jen Bay Jazz label, have hit No. 1 on the Gavin jazz-airplay chart, no mean feat on a recording landscape dominated by conglomerate-owned labels with fat advertising budgets and much deeper pockets.
Swingin’, the guitarist’s ninth album, may well take a similar route to the top. It’s yet another fine showcase for his bebop-bred chops, this time heard over the pliable support of bassist Robert Hurst (“Tonight Show” orchestra; Wynton and Branford Marsalis) and drummer Winard Harper (the Harper Brothers; Betty Carter, Jimmy Heath). The three, from the subdued opener, Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” to Elf’s gentle ballad, “Middle of the Night,” demonstrate a particularly intimate, personal brand of small-group jazz.
John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” may be the pick hit here: Elf swings like hell, relaxed but ripping on a piece that’s too often played with a manic edge; and Harper is a fountain of invention during the trading-eights section. Hurst gets some well-taken solo space on Elf’s bluesy “Gambinie’s Bambinies,” its melody spiced with a reference to “Take the A Train.”
The trio becomes a quartet, with the addition of pianist Aaron Goldberg (Joshua Redman), on the heady “Blowins’ For the Cohen’s “ and the scrambling, minor-to-major “HOV Lane.” And the leader closes the long, satisfying set with two pleasing solo pieces, both chestnuts. He walks a bass line under the melody and improvisation of “Manhattan” and goes for something slower and more lush on “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Overall, it’s nice work from a guy who probably wouldn’t argue with this title: Call Elf the hardest working guitarist in the jazz business.
Mark Elf performs March 2 at the Firefly Club, 207 S. Ashley in Ann Arbor.
E-mail Philip Booth at [email protected].