Reviews

Mark Elf
Trickynometry
(Jen Bay Jazz)

Mark Elf is one of those people who seem to think in music. Hiply articulate, the jazz guitarist, currently with the mainstream bebop Heath Brothers band, speaks with the accents and emphasis and enthusiasm of a good improvised phrase. He translates everyday experience into music. Two of the songs on Trickynometry are dedicated to a deceased friend. That's not unusual, but has anyone else been inspired to write a blues by the routine exchange of business cards? As he tells the story, Elf looked at his acquaintance's card and noted his "dot com" there. Elf was without an e-mail address, so he went home and wrote the bopping, mock-serious "Dot Com Blues," which is sung on Trickynometry by Miles Griffith. "This was a crazy idea," the lyric goes, and then Griffith is followed by Nicholas Payton's brightly powerful trumpet solo.

Trickynometry is Elf's fifth disc -- this one is self-produced -- but he still isn't well enough known to the general public. He's a bebop guitarist who plays gracefully long-lined, cleanly articulated solos on ballads. He bounces through the changes on his more complicated compositions, the angular title tune or his gracefully swinging "Monk Like," a tribute that smoothes the pianist's sharp edges. There's something transparent about Elf's improvisations: He doesn't falter, fudge, or muddy a thing. His single-line solos are clear like Mozart. His ballads are sweetly, but also intelligently, lyrical. He pauses for a second after stating the melody of "Monk Like," and then with the active accompaniment of bassist Christian McBride, he plays a short phrase that is gradually elaborated. Soon he plays a long, double-timed phrase, and begins alternating gently swinging, almost vocal phrases with guitarlike riffs. Finally he plays a chorus of Wes Montgomery octaves. He's mastered the instrument, he seems to be telling us, and doesn't need either to show off or to hide his chops.

Elf's repertoire is delightful. He not only plays his boppish originals and blues, he goes back to early popular standards rarely heard since Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster were striding across stages: songs like "Love Walked In" and "Just in Time." On Trickynometry he is accompanied by a group of stellar young players, some of whom, like McBride and Payton, are leaders on their own. It's a sign of the respect that Elf has among jazz musicians. No wonder: He has played with veterans such as Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, and, of course, the Heath Brothers. He's moving out from time to time on his own. He deserves to be heard.

-- Michael Ullman

Swans
Swans Are Dead Live
(Young God/Atavistic)

Attrition -- the act of wearing away a surface through repeated rubbing, or the gradual reduction of will through constant waves of repetition -- is the defining characteristic of Swans. In the 15-year existence of the now-finished group, vocalist/guitarist Michael Gira and a revolving door of contributors -- the most significant of these being longtime vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe -- sought to isolate and exaggerate the limitations of music. Where rhythm and melody traditionally embody a song, Swans have dissected it. Where lyrical themes traditionally ignore the visceral and brutal sides of sexuality, Swans have sought to magnify them.

On early recordings like Filth and Young God, Swans hammered single or double beats of a measure and a melody into plodding tempos. The result was simplistic, brutal, and anti-melodic. But once Gira had mastered the form, he abandoned it in favor of a new sound, one in which chiming Middle Eastern drones were infused with a rhythmic impulsion. The melodicism cost the band a considerable following in the early '90s.

Swans Are Dead, the final act of attrition, contains live recordings culled from their final world tours of 1995 and 1997. Here, as clever as always, Swans' music atomizes rhythm and melody by taking repetition to an extreme, almost aberrant degree, to a point where the music is transformed into a behemoth machine that simultaneously disrupts and illuminates its own internal structure. On the album opener, "Feel Happiness," the rhythm of a standard bar is frozen, as a repeated snare crack and cymbal crash compound beneath drop-tuned droning bass, guitars, and keyboard. Similar to the way a skipping CD or record plucks a small element from a passage and disrupts its logic, the repetition of flowing cymbals and a fragmented guitar melody disrupts a normal rock song.

Many of the songs performed on these final tours were versions of older Swans material, reworked to emphasize certain melodic, lyrical, and rhythmic subtleties. "Blood Promise," the syrupy 1994 ballad, is stripped to a torturous chiming drone of guitars and flaring cymbals. "I Crawled" is reworked from its original crushing plod into a tense narrative with slowly building crescendos.

Still, it is songs like "The Sound" and "Not Alone" that jarringly demonstrate Swans' tasteful flirtation with streamlined melodies. Compounding several harmonies of instruments that swirl continuously in mantra form, the group creates a sound of constant elevation and rhythmic attrition. "The Sound" begins as a murmur of keyboards, vibraphone, and lightly thumping percussion, and a simple melody is slowly built within the repetitive modulation between two notes. The structure has fractured and musical order is, if only briefly, transcended. Which is exactly the aim of Swans' music -- to give the taste of ecstatic annihilation. And here, a blissful farewell.

-- Dave Clifford

 
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