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No Small Elf: The Mark Elf Trio– Live at Smalls (Jen Bay Jazz, 2000)

By Benson Knickerbocker

New York City jazz guitarist Mark Elf did not bother to rest on the laurels of his Spring 2000 release, Over the Airwaves. The album reached #1 on the Gavin Jazz Chart in May but that did not keep Elf down. Considering it was his 6th consecutive CD to go into the Top Ten on National Jazz Radio, I think Elf is simply going for #7 with his latest release, Live at Smalls.


Live at Smalls, recorded in 1995 at the famous New York City Club, is actually going a few years back in Elf’s catalog. At the time of this performance, Elf’s recorded output was a couple of trio albums plus the work that he did as a sideman for noted soul-jazzers Lou Donaldson, Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland. Since this date, Elf’s solo output blasted off with the release of the successful albums A Minor Scramble, Trickynometry, New York Cats and Over the Airwaves. When Trickynometry was at #1, he had to face the stiff competition of great albums such as Charlie Hunter’s Pound for Pound, the Astral Project’s Elevado and John Scofield’s A Go Go. Not bad!

For Live at Smalls, Elf is joined by Neil Miner and Joe Strausser, two musicians that have been very active in the New York City jazz environment. Miner worked with Elf on two albums, A Minor Scramble and Trickynometry while Strausser is regular player at Smalls. The live date is the perfect confirmation of Elf’s superb playing. It simply shows that he is equally as expressive in a live setting as he is in the studio. Elf has some of the fastest fingers in the business but not at the expense of losing the effect of a well-placed note. This especially felt on songs like "It Was Written in the Stars", "Quick Silver" and "The Theme". The former song was originally written by Harold Arlen and sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Despite Elf’s obvious technical superiority on the guitar, his playing is not devoid of passion. Elf may be quick but he is also tremendously expressive and imaginative. The album captures the trio playing swing, bebop, ballads, soul jazz and the blues with each band member given ample opportunity to strut their stuff. On "The Theme", the song is much as a highlight for drummer Strausser as it is for Elf. Another amazing aspect of this live date is Elf’s uncanny ability to swing as shown on the two versions of "109 West". The song harks to Elf’s tenures with the great Hammond B-3 players such as Groove Holmes and Charles Earland.

For more info, head on over to Jen Bay Jazz