'The music of dreams' is finally a reality
Club d'Elf's first studio album was an 8-year project
- By Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent | November 5, 2006
Eight years. Ninety players. Hundreds of shows. Infinite possibilities. That, in a nutshell, is what Club d'Elf bandleader Mike Rivard was facing when he began sifting through tapes to assemble the celebrated Boston collective's first-ever studio album.
"In a lot of ways this project was insane," says Rivard of the debut, "Now I Understand" (out as a joint release between Cambridge's Hi-N-Dry and Somerville's Accurate labels). "It defies logic." Making the album, he says, "wasn't done with any sort of eye on the marketplace, or any sense of what radio station's going to play this or what format we're going to fit into. It's uncategorizable."
Uncategorizable it may be, but ever since Rivard -- a Berklee-trained bassist who's performed with everyone from Aimee Mann and Shawn Colvin to Morphine and Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker -- launched d'Elf in 1998 as a free-floating instrumental enterprise keen on unfettered improvisation and genre-obliterating exploration, an expanding group of listeners has embraced the d'Elf sound (as if there was merely one). Rivard prefers to liken the group's transmuting tones and fluctuating tempos, and the intuitive, collective unconscious among its players, to "the music of dreams."
Billy Beard, a drummer who also books music for the Lizard Lounge and its sister club, Toad, remembers giving d'Elf its first show -- and being thrilled with the results. "From the first couple of gigs, it became clear that this was a fantastic match of art and venue," says Beard via e-mail. "Any time you have truly gifted players who, beyond all of the ability, talent, and expertise they possess, have mastered the art of listening to each other, you are bound to have something special happen."
"Now I Understand" does a great job of capturing and reining in most, if not all, of the group's polyglot influences. (To experience the full spectrum of d'Elf's sonic universe, you'd need to check out its seven double-disc live sets, available at clubdelf.com).
The new CD, whose material will get a live airing when Club d'Elf visits its favorite haunt, the Lizard Lounge, Thursday, is an intoxicating, mad-chemist mix of the organic and electronic: dub-dosed acid jazz spiked with elements of trance-inducing traditional Moroccan Gnawa and Berber music; psychedelic rock excursions set to looped beats and deep dance-floor grooves.
It's an ambitious work, of course, but eight years? Rivard knows this sounds like the timeline of either a world champion procrastinator or an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. "I was trying to get a meta-d'Elf, the ultimate snapshot of what the band is about, with as many people who have played with the band as I could get on there," he says. Rivard eventually settled for including two dozen of nearly 100 players who've passed through the group's ranks, among them high-profile heavyweights such as Medeski Martin and Wood keyboardist John Medeski, Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane (who's worked with Peter Gabriel among others), and David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels .
Then there was the question of how to treat the material. The eight-minute "Vision of Kali," for instance, is an exotic collision of East and West that integrates nearly a dozen instruments, including oud, dumbek , electric viola, clavinet, and Hammond organ. "Each of these tracks could be mixed a million different ways, and there were so many different elements that to have them all would overwhelm the listener," says Rivard, who produced and arranged the tracks in nine recording studios. "A lot of [the work] was editing and moving things around, saying goodbye and weeding things out. You've got to leave space for things to breathe. I didn't have a record company that I was doing it for, so I didn't have anybody breathing down my back or presenting . . . deadlines, which was both a blessing and a curse."
The eight-year project produced much more than the 67 minutes of music represented on the new disc. "This CD is only the tip of the iceberg," Rivard says, adding that he's got enough music in the can to release at least a couple more studio albums. Those may include some of the last recordings made by his late friend and former d'Elf collaborator , Morphine leader Mark Sandman.
Despite the care with which Rivard has compiled a studio album that documents what Club d'Elf is and where it's been, the stage is truly where the collective flourishes and draws inspiration. On any given night, it is the place Club d'Elf calls home, where just about anything can happen, and often does -- the setting, Rivard says, where an almost "supernatural" or "spiritual" simpatico takes over. "There's a tacit understanding that everybody checks their egos at the door," he says. "Everybody's there to contribute, like a musical salon, to have a conversation. There's a real give and take, a lot of listening, a lot of laying out. And then, when the time comes, it's about stepping up and blowing like there's no tomorrow. Like it's the last gig that we'll ever do."