In conversation with mark elf
by Marissa Dodge
The Mark Elf Guitar Conservatory recently opened online. [Editorís note: Check it out here.] From what Iíve seen and heard from guitar players, your teaching concepts are remarkably logical and jazz language oriented. Would you expand on that?
I basically approach the music from a practical standpoint. In other words, if you're going to practice something you might as well practice something that you can apply to your playing. This has been done throughout jazz history by the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and I learned that way, and a lot of the great players I know, learned that way.
I mean a lot of people practice technique and running their scales and arpeggios and yes thatís really important, but you have to make music out of it and the best way to learn how to make music out of it is from someone who can already do it. Thatís how Clifford Brown learned from Fats Navarro, and Charlie Parker learned from Lester Young - I could just keep going.
What Iíve done here on the conservatory is that some players just canít transcribe and they need to see it and hear it. This concept is what the greatest jazz musicians did and I'm applying that concept of learning to the conservatory by showing how to apply phrases and lines and how to play between the changes. In other words, how to hook the changes up from a linear and melodic standpoint.
When you learn these little phrases and ideas you're learning the language, but you're also - from osmosis so to speak - learning the ways in which the lines hook up very strongly between the changes. Thatís usually the biggest stumbling block of most players, they might be able to play on one change or another but getting them all to flow together is a major issue with most players learning to play.
Thatís a true sign of someone who has really concentrated on learning the language: fluidity through the progressions - intuitively choosing the definitive notes.
That is the music, that is the essence of what you need to be doing. In order to understand how to do it you have to learn it from somebody who already knows how to do it. Like I said, you can learn scales and arpeggios on each of the chords, but making music out of them and getting them to flow freely is really the toughest part about playing really well. So what I do on the site is to show players how to do that by example. The site has intermediate and advance so if some of the concepts in the advanced section are beyond what a particular student might understand then he or she can go back to the intermediate section, look at those videos and theory then fully understand what I'm talking about. So anything that I talk about is covered in the site and there are no unanswered questions. Students can also upload videos of themselves playing so I can see how they play, how theyíre progressing, and make suggestions.
As you've seen, I might play a chorus of a tune and I'll slow the thing down in slow motion by 50% or even as much as 66% so it's actually playing at 1/3 speed in a close-up of my left hand so they can see exactly what's going on as the changes are going by. They can grab those lines, learn them, digest them and assimilate. As the months and years go by that becomes part of you and not only teaches your hands but it also teaches your ears what works, and eventually the student is able to do that on their own.
The idea is you continue, go off on your own and do it yourself. Iím not looking to have students stay here forever and ever and string them along, thatís not the purpose of this. The purpose is to get them to learn how to do this - to get them to actually be able to play good choruses themselves - and then they can go on. If they want to stay they can stay, but then you know itís like anything else, you move on and you find your own voice. The purpose of this site is to do that and to get guys to really play.
Some people would say, ďWell, no, the idea from a business standpoint you want to keep them there, you donít want to let them go.Ē But you know if a player moves on and plays great and then someone else hears that player playing great, then theyíre going to say, ďHey, how did you learn to play like that?Ē So Iíll be getting an influx of players who want to learn how to play and Iím not worried about losing players who have achieved - that only makes me feel good and thatís a feather in my cap when it happens, so thatís the positive end of that. Iím doing this because I want players to really get it.
And eventually what we all want and hope to do as jazz players and enthusiasts is to exponentially improve the art form.
Absolutely. If a player comes out of this and has his or her own voice and goes on to do something in the field, thatís nothing but good. Thatís the purpose of it.
Youíre also a great writer; will there be a composition section at your conservatory? Do you have any desire to show students how you construct a composition and whatís behind it?
[Laughing] Forgive me for chuckling, OK? But I see people in schools offering composition classes and that sort of thing, the truth of that is there are no classes for that, there is no teaching somebody to write.
Do you know the best composition class that I ever had? I was trying to write some tunes in the 70s and I was hanging out with Bill Hardman at the time - great trumpet player; Bill Hardman and Junior Cook - I used to play with them on and off in the 70s. Bill was a good friend and I was trying to write this tune, so I called Bill up and I said, ďHey Bill, man, Iím trying to write this tune and you know itís like Iím not sure how to really go about it.Ē And he said to me, ďWell, look man, just write the shit you normally play.Ē [Laughing] Just like that he told me. That was the only composition class I ever went to and I just did that. So basically when Iím writing a tune thereís no formula for it, thereís no class you can really take on that - although some people would probably argue with me about that.
I sit down and construct a melody. Sometimes Iíll just hear something and Iíll start writing it and it comes out. When you have a good melodic and linear sense and you listen to a lot of music you just try to write. Sometimes it doesnít come out easy, some of itís really hard, some things just come out easier than others, but I would never say, ďOh yeah, I could teach composition,Ē or anything like that. If you can play, if you have the ability to be creative and you can play something then you just - like Bill said, ďwrite what you play.Ē If youíre able to sit down and play something on the guitar and itís the start of a tune - the start of a melody - write it out and keep developing the melody and the changes.
Sometimes Iíve written tunes on already existing harmonies like ďDream SteppiníĒ is based on ďYou Stepped Out Of A Dream.Ē I decided I wanted to play on that tune but I wanted to have my own head so I wrote that particular head; I tried to create some rhythmic modern sounding type of head and I came up with that. Sometimes I write a tune and I donít have any changes in mind and I create it as I go. But I donít really think anyone can teach anyone how to write a song, I think you either have the ability to write a song or you donít. Sometimes itís hard work, you have to just sit and force yourself to write - unless you think of something - like Iíve thought of things, I might be in the shower and I hurry up and get out of the shower and go on my guitar or drop something down on a piece of paper and get something started. Iíve had instances where Iíve started a tune and then finished it the next day but ordinarily I do it in one shot. Or Iím inspired by something Iíve heard and Iíll do it. But I really donít think anyone can teach composition, honestly I donít believe so anyway.
Well, I just learned some things from your ďanti-composition courseĒ course. (Laughing)
Yeah, I suppose so.
Iíve been asked the same question and I usually give a conceptual answer unless itís a particular song theyíre asking about and they want you to explain its impetus.
I think the best composition course is listening to Strayhorn, Duke, and all of the great standard writers. Iím still glad I asked because I admire your writing.
Oh, thank you.
Sometimes youíll have a great player and theyíll have good ideas when they solo but then when they sit down to write itís not as interesting as their takes on established tunes. Itís almost as if they take a break from structure and go off into a different place, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Iíve heard players like that and thatís just the way it is. Some write good compositions and others donít, so you just enjoy the ones that you like.
Well, scratch the composition course. What additional plans do you have for your conservatory?
My goal right now is to have a large amount of content; to cover lots of tunes, forms, changes, and chord solos. I want to have a huge library up there so that players can come and feel like they can find whatever theyíre working on. Iím going to do an extensive thing on rhythm changes because the blues and rhythm changes are two forms that are important in jazz. Iím going to be doing a big stack of videos on ďI Got RhythmĒ changes and lots of different types of changes that can be played on that form. I want to have a big, big, library of material, hundreds and hundreds - my goal is to have a thousand videos up there. Iím not kidding, itís going to take a long time but thatís what I really want to do, so when people enroll they feel like they can find anything and they can have a solid base to get what they want.
I also thought about having a student of the month, based not so much on the playerís ability but more as to how the player has progressed over a month or more. I donít want it to be a fight or have anyone get mad, feel left out, or like itís like a competition, but really music is a very competitive business and it is in a sense the reality of the world, so I donít think it would be a terrible thing to do. Itís more to encourage practice and work, as a reward factor. Somebody gets crowned every month and thatís a nice way to tip your hat to somebody whoís worked very hard.
Back to your playing, are there people that youíre visualizing a project with?
Well, actually because of this conservatory project I havenít really thought of recording anything new because this is really consuming me right now. I mean Iíve got a dozen records out and I donít feel a need to put any more out anytime soon - that can change tomorrow, but right now this is really what Iím focusing on. Once I get a really nice library for the students up there, then Iíll start think about doing my own projects again. Recording is very consuming. I really donít want anything else going on around me - itís like tunnel vision when Iím working on a record. I donít want to worry about anything else. Usually I work on projects for months and months.
Do you mean writing for them or recording them?
Yeah you know, like Milt Jackson says before heíd play a tune publicly heíd have to ďlive with it for a while.Ē So I work on those tunes - especially the last two albums that I did. You know I tackled Traneís changes - especially the ďCountdownĒ changes, theyíre very difficult to play on, especially on up tempos, they become just monstrous to work and I worked very hard. Jimmy (Heath) told me that Trane worked on ďGiant StepsĒ for over two years before he recorded it. I donít expect to be working on anything like that again for a while. Iím not sure what Iím going to do after that, I mean I canít play any more changes than that. I think Trane kind of said that too, ďIíve played all the changes I can play.ď I have no idea what Iím going to do on my next project - I think Iíll probably just pick some favorite tunes and just play them, or write a few new tunes, I donĎt know. Iím thinking about the conservatory right now, itís brand new and in sort of a fledgling state. I just want to build it and get a lot of material up there, thatís really what Iím thinking about Iím not really thinking about recording anything new.
How do you choose individual tunes for the conservatory? Are you going for the ones with the most universal changes and will you add difficult ones that you know players need to learn?
Thatís very good question. What Iíve done now is put up the kinds of tunes that players will come across in say, jam session situations or on gigs, teaching them the changes to ďHow High The Moon,Ē ďAutumn Leaves,Ē ďJust Friends,Ē very basic - theyíre jam session-type tunes. But Iím going to start getting into more heavy weight tunes and tunes with different kinds of forms that are much more involved. First I just want to get up some of the basic tunes that most of the students - and when I was coming up the tunes that I learned - can learn the changes to and be able to play through those changes. So Iím going to be tackling those kinds of tunes and get a lot of those up first, and then start taking some of the more obscure type tunes that most players donít play or hear as much, or that some of the students donít know.
What do you listen to when you get a chance?
I like all of the old records, but I like some of the new players on the scene. I actually donít listen as much as I should. When Iím the car Iíll turn on the radio and I listen to whatís being played and I donít always like what I hear, but then sometimes I get surprised and someoneís playing some ridiculous stuff and I really like it. Right off the top of my head I canít think of anything. I like Joel FrahmĎs playing and some of the other guys on the scene - canít think of their names offhand.
It sounds like youíre hopeful about the direction of jazz.
Yeah, yeah, I donít have much hope for the business of it. I have hope for the artistic end of it, but the business end, I donít see very much light at the end of the rainbow. Itís a tiny fragment of the industry and it canít support the players that are already in it, so business-wise itís not terribly promising. But then anybody that ever played this music or wanted to play it wasnít thinking about money anyway. If they were thinking about money they wouldnít be playing this music. Theyíd be doing something completely different.
Art and the marketplace just donít mesh do they?
Any other thoughts about your current project?
All I would say is that I would hope that any aspiring guitarists looking to get their acts and their instrument together will come by and check out the conservatory site. The good part about it is that itís very inexpensive and I kept it that way because I figured guys going to college can afford to do it without too much of a strain. Itís around the cost of a tank of gas nowadays. You can sign on and hang out for three months and get all you can. I look forward to players signing on and me helping them all I can.
My burning question. Youíve played with great organ players like Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff and great piano players like Hank Jones and David Hazeltine. Iíve listened extensively to The Eternal Triangle, A Minor Scramble, New York Cats, Swinginí, Dream Steppiní , Glad To Be Back, Liftoff, etc., and Iíve always wanted to ask you about your methodology to comping. Will you illustrate the difference between comping with an organ player vs. a piano player? And what do you want to hear from a piano player so that it doesnít get in your way when you solo but also inspires you?
First of all, anytime youíre on a gig with a guitar player and piano player - Iím actually going to do a whole video on the conservatory about this - the main thing that you have to realize as a guitar player is that the piano is physically a huge instrument; itís got a big sound and unlike guitar, a piano player can hit ten note chords, he can play heavy-handed and a lot of stuff. Depending upon who youíre playing with depends upon what youíre going to do and how youíre going to approach it. What type of person is this musician, does he respect the guitar and does he respect the person playing it? All of that comes into play when youíre working with a piano player.
When I worked with Hank Jones with Dizzy in 1988, I was comping lightly behind Hank when he was playing a solo and he turned to me and said, ďGive me four, could you give me four?Ē Or he said, ďCould you play it like Freddie Green?Ē I knew that he wanted me to chomp in four, so I turned off my amp - almost all the way off, maybe it was all the way off - and I just played rhythm guitar for him, I just played the changes four to the bar. But some rhythm sections donít want that type of rhythm because itís too tight and itís old school - they consider it to be too swing style. But Hank is an old-timer so thatís what he wanted and I love Hank, Iíd give him anything he wants. My attitude was whatever makes this gentleman happy, Iím happy to do.
When I was playing with Ray Brown and Clark Terry, one time I was on a ship and three was just a trio, Ray, Clark, and myself, there were no drums or piano. I comped behind Clark, and when Ray had a solo he turned to me and he said, ďGimme some glue,Ē and I knew exactly what he meant, I turned my amp way down and I chomped in four.
Then I was on a gig with Jimmy Heath - part of the Jimmy Heath band - and we were at the Iridium and Jimmy hired Sir Roland Hannah. Roland and I know each other for many, many years; in fact he hired me in the 70s to play at a place called Gulliverís. He called me up and he said, ďHey man, you wannaí play a gig with me at Gulliverís?Ē and I said, ďSure Iíd love to.Ē I was thrilled that he called me and he said, ďYou get the bass player.Ē So I called this cat named Bob Bodley - great bass player - and we played with Roland. I comped behind him and he comped behind me, you know we played some solos. I donít exactly remember how we played together because it was 30-35 years ago, but I would tell you that I remember this one at the Iridium because when Jimmy was there we had a horn player and basically I might comp behind Jimmy for 2 or 3 choruses and then I would lay out and I would just look at Roland and heíd comp, so we would exchange comping duties. Rather than having two rhythmic concepts underneath Jimmy and mess up his solo we chose to share the comping. Sometimes we would play together and do things together, sometimes I would just play some quiet lines underneath while Roland was comping, Iíd play some guide tones behind Jimmy or something like that. But I stayed pretty much out of the way, I would play something but it would be something quiet that didnít distract from his solo or get in the way of Roland.
Then I was on a gig with Dizzy and we were in a different city and it was without Hank, and Kenny Barron was on piano. I think we were at a rehearsal or sound check and Dizzy and the rhythm section were playing, and Kenny was comping behind Dizzyís solo and I didnít play because Kenny was very busy and was comping great and sounded good and I didnít want to get in Dizzyís way so I chose not to play. Then Dizzy turned around to me and he said (Mark doing Dizzy's voice), ďHey man, how come youíre not playing?Ē just like that he said to me, and I said, ďWell, because I didnít want to get in the way of Kenny and I didnít want to mess up your train of thought up by having two chord instruments behind you.Ē And Dizzy said, ďOh well, just get in the cracks.Ē At that point Kenny turned around to me and said, ďOh man, Iíll lighten up a little bit.Ē In other words, Kenny was sensitive to the fact that I didnít want to get in the way.
You know itís not about, ďIím just gonnaí get in here no matter what happens,Ē you canít think like that, you canít be like that. I mean you get on gigs and see and hear things like that and itís horrible and I donít want to do that. So if I canít add something to it - I just chose not to play at that moment at that sound check and Dizzy wanted me to. Then afterwards, yeah I did comp and play some other things and I found my way to add to the situation in a musical sense so I wouldnít clash with Kennyís comping. Kenny was also very sensitive with me and the fact that I showed that, made him more sensitive to the fact that I cared and I think really that is important.
Thereís not a real strong answer for this age-long question about how guitar and piano can play together. But you know sometimes even when I played on my records, and if you listen to Wes with Wynton Kelly, you know he comps low but it doesnít get in the way, he knows where to put it and thatís really the key to it. When you play with a particular piano player long enough you get to know that, so you know sometimes itís better to lay out or play little. Sometimes you can comp and you can have two things going on, in other words the piano left hand and your left hand - if youíre a right-handed guitar player that is - itís possible to do it musically. So each situation is a situation unique to itself depending upon the two players and what their attitudes and musical abilities are, how they listen, how they hear, and how they respect each other, all of that comes into play.
Intuition and appropriateness.
Right, all of those things really determine it. Some piano players are like, ďThis is a piano world and Iím the harmonic instrument, you play around me.Ē You know, there are players like that and so if thatís gonna be the case you have to deal with that accordingly.
How have you handled this in the past?
Well, as a guitar player you run into this all the time and sure, I ran into it a lot, but what I did is I just didnít comp unless the piano player laid out. I stayed out of the way and I just played my solo and I did what I wanted to do and that was it. But the thing is a lot of times I was with organ players, they sustain the chords in their right hand and then I would comp. But if it was an organist that did a lot of rhythmic comping in his right hand then you got that same thing, but itís not as bad because heís playing the bass with his left hand; most of them do, unless you have an organ player that can play bass lines with his foot, but most of them play bass with their foot and their left hand, so they only have - fortunately - five fingers, so it doesnít get too thick.
I played with Lonnie Smith and we had a nice rapport, and with Jimmy (McGriff), and (Jack) McDuff - all those guys - I didnít have any problems at all. They were used to having a guitarist, like Grant (Green) played with McDuff - they had their own thing going on, so I never really had any problem with organ, except for the volume thing, it gets pretty loud.
Right. There are only so many frequencies; when youíve got two chord instruments youíve got to have a plan.
Well, the thing is itís the chord voicings and the rhythmic concept, so youíve got two things going on. Sometimes I play in a guitar band, like a quintet - with five guitars playing parts or whatever -and when the solos came up thereíd be three guys comping, and I used to get upset about that. I said, ďLook just one comp behind me and letís say the person to the left comps and the rest of you guys just sit there unless youíve got something to play, unless youíve got a part or a background or something.ď Everybody doesnít have to play at the same time. Itís just the musical thing to do, to not play sometimes - I shouldnít have to say that.
(Laughs) Anything else you can think of?
Not a thing. (Both laughing)
Thanks Mark, youíre a very generous and laid-back cat.
Iím the same as anybody else, I just play the guitar.
No man, youíre a great soul. Itís nice to have a great player and great person in one.
Well, thanks. You know thereís funny little joke about that; one musician asks, ďHey man, can you recommend a couple of guys?Ē So the other musician says, ďThereís a real nice guy who plays drums and a real nice guy who plays bass.Ē The first musician says, ďNever mind the nice guys, just give me a couple assholes that can play.Ē [Both laughing] But I know what youíre saying; itís nice when youíve got the combination.