Smoke & Mirrors
The Ray Charles band used to test out their material on the road. When they found something special, like what the 'Ooh-Ahh' section in What'd I Say could do to a dance floor, they'd record it. Similarly, the music on composer/soloist Steve Elson's Smoke and Mirrors has been distilled from his life as a working musician. Over the last twenty-five years, he's played funk, blues, jazz, rock, pop, r&b, Latin, and klezmer. He's learned lessons you can only get from the bandstand, like the absolute importance of the correct tempo, what makes a horn section tight, and how to lock in with the bass and drums. What's even more important, and less subject to analysis, he's learned how to get down, how far to go out, and how to bring it back home.The excellent musicians Elson has assembled share his breadth of experience. As a result, there's an effortless swing, a relaxed groove, and a sinuous give and take, not only in the solos, but in the supporting parts. While the supple quality of the ensemble performance defies conventional notation, it simply, and profoundly, reflects a common awareness and understanding. What particularly distinguishes the music, however, is Elson's craft as a composer and his attention to detail - themes are rarely stated the same way twice; a lead line will be supported by two, three or four counter melodies; the combinations of instruments and their function within the ensemble will shift from section to section; a canonic cascade will come out of nowhere to support a solo; an apparently free introduction will resurface as a funky bridge. Many of the pieces display a lively wit and a delightful sense of humor - a recapitulation suddenly modulates; an interpolated bar of 5/4 shakes up a regular rhythm; a smokey ballad transforms itself into a superfly groove. Above all, there is an abundance of melodic invention, and some of the tunes are heartbreakingly beautiful.While it's not unusual for 'art' composers to be attracted to the vitality of the more functional musics of song, dance and celebration, the results often seem stiff and false. Steve Elson comes at popular music from the inside, where if the band can't cut it, they're out of a job. His pieces feel right, from the langorous propulsion of the tango, to rowdy gutbucket squawk, to the exquisite shadings of the cafe waltz. It may be called Smoke and Mirrors, but this, in all it's passionate and soulful conviction, is the real thing. What do David Bowie, Natalie Merchant, Sam and Dave, Diana Ross, Johnny Otis, Phillip Glass, Jonathan Demme, Laurie Anderson, and Joe Jackson have in common? Steve Elson. Born in Berkeley, California, he started playing saxophone at the age of 11. After high school, he began performing with the finest rhythm and blues, latin, soul music and jazz groups around the S.F. Bay Area. He toured North America with the legendary Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Revue, alongside such artists as guitarist Shuggie Otis, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and the Three Tons of Joy. After studies with Harold Stein and jazz great Joe Henderson, Elson moved to New York City. While performing on the burgeoning loft jazz scene, he began recording and playing with a great variety of creative and commercial artists such as Tito Puente, Duran Duran, the Temptations, Peter Gabriel, the Talking Heads, the Beach Boys, among many others. Elson was one of the co-founders of the proto-funk group, the Slickaphonics, with Ray Anderson and Mark Helias. This ensemble recorded five albums, and performed world-wide in clubs, concerts and major music festivals including the Montreaux, Berlin and North Sea Jazz Festivals. His playing was featured on David Bowie's 'Let's Dance", including the baritone sax solo on the mega-hit Modern Love. This was the beginning of a long-term and on-going musical relationship. Elson went on to tour, record, and provide horn arrangements on subsequent Bowie CD's. Elson co-founded the Borneo Horns (along with Stan Harrison and Lenny Pickett) in 1983. This innovative ensemble toured throughout Europe, and the U.S. in concerts and festivals. As a sideman he has performed on hundreds of commercial and creative music LP's, CD's and on the soundtracks of many feature films including Get Shorty and director Ang Lee's Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. He has performed on Saturday Night Live, the Conan O'Brien Show, the Prairie Home Companion, Live from the Apollo, the MTV Music Awards and Farm Aid. He received commissions from, and performed with many of Manhattan's new music ensembles including Peter Gordon's Love of Life Orchestra, Linda Bouchard's Abandon, the groups of Scott Johnson, Guy Klucevsek, Dick Connette (Last Forever), Bobby Previte, the Klezmatics and Robert Een. He has composed music for Off Broadway shows, commercials and documentaries. His music has been featured on many radio shows including John Schaeffer's New Sounds on NPR. Elson was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship grant in Music Composition. He received two major National Endowment for the Arts grants in the field of Jazz Composition. The New York State Council on the Arts awarded him a grant from the Individual Artists Program. His work has been supported repeatedly by commissioning grants from the Mary Cary Flagler Charitable Trust and 'Meet the Composer' He was a resident at Duke University, composing music for chamber ensemble as a part of the American Dance Festival and has sat on curatorial panels for NYC's Dance Theater Workshop. He has been part of panels to determine the recipient of states composition grants. Some of the artist/choreographers he has collaborated with include; Risa Jaroslow, David Parsons, Yoshiko Chuma, Robert Longo, Marta Renzi, Bill T. Jones, Amy Sue Rosen and Hilary Easton. Recently Elson composed, and recorded music for Academy Award winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme's documentary Right to Return on the effects of the hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Jon Pareles of the New York Times ? 'Mr. Elson composes pieces that combine his studio skills-precise articulation and machine-tooled ensemble riffing-with forays into extended harmony, shifty rhythms and wry humor. In some pieces it sounded like the missing link between the Philip Glass Ensemble and James Brown's JB's, dispensing crisp minimalistic riffs in staggered patterns.' ? Deborah Jowitt in the Village Voice? '...a beguiling jazz/new music score that sparkles with irony.' ? Peter Watrous of the New York Times? 'Mr. Elson brought a real passion for melody to his pieces. Where a lesser composer might have used a style in quotes, Mr. Elson used the styles from the outside, knowing well their implications. And he used them from within as well, manipulating the melodies and the harmonies to elicit all sorts of emotionally sophisticated work' ? Charles Murray in London's New Music Express? 'Steve Elson's joyous baritone sax and Stevie Ray Vaughn's majestic guitar drive David Bowie to what seem like new vocal heights.' ? Drew Featherston of New York Newsday ? 'Elson's music takes many chances, ranging widely over traditional and unconventional forms, and the quality throughout is remarkably high.'