Who (and what) defines the Boston-based, dub-jazz Club d’Elf is an enigma. At the core, the “group” is bassist and composer Mike Rivard and drummer Dean Johnston. Rivard has far-flung history ranging from Either-Orchestra to the Boston Pops Orchestra and the cult rock group Morphine. Johnston had perused a career in the Athens, Georgia music scene before returning to the Northeast. Club d’Elf is as much a performance entity as a musical group and with each performance, the surrounding sphere of players may change. Live At Club Helsinki is a double-disc set recorded at the Hudson, New York club.
Joining Rivard and Johnston on a half-dozen keyboard instruments is John Medeski. The sextet also includes oud player/percussionist Brahim Fribgane, DJ Mister Rourke and guitarist Duke Levine who has performed or recorded with a number of top folk/country artists such as Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Iterations of Club d’Elf have been playing the Helsinki venue for more than fifteen years and the audience enthusiasm for the music is apparent (but wisely contained) in the recording.
Live At Club Helsinki features both new improvisations and older Club d’Elf material. While a Moroccan influence is strongly associated with the group, the first disc is focused more on improvisation with dub style rhythms. The opening half-hour consists of a highly energized and seamless journey through “Moogador,” “Africa” and “The Booloolu.” The first of the three featuring stand out playing from Medeski, then Levine on “Africa” and Rivard and Johnston on the last of these three pieces which wraps up with an oud solo from Fribgane.
Fribgane segues into “Hegaz” (still with no break in the music) and is joined by Medeski, now on the B3. Much of “Secret Atom” showcases Mister Rourke’s turntables and Levine’s electric guitar which carries the show into the first disc’s closer, “Berber Song” with its driving rock rhythm turned chaabi. The Moroccan influence is more powerfully felt as the second disc opens with “Al-Hadra,” a group improvisation which features guest flautist Thomas Workman. The traditional “Zeed Al Maal” brings the strings of Fribgane and Levine together in an inspiring treatment of the piece.
“Power Plant” is a genre-defying Rivard composition that has touches of western guitar, bluesy B3 and bass and Middle Eastern oud, amazingly working together. “Salvia” and “Green Screen” are firmly planted in an electric rock rhythms before Fribgane’s “Sidi Rabi” closes the album in the traditional spirit if not traditional origins.
Though Club d’Elf has been around for some time, they will likely be a find for many jazz fans. Live At Club Helsinki is one of those rare recordings that points in a viable direction for the future of creative music and its’ near two-hour running time goes by in a flash. This is dynamic and intense music with driving percussion and an accessible blend of styles that is unmatched by any current offerings. Highly recommended.
Track Listing: Disc 1: Moogador, Africa, The Booloolu, Hegaz, Secret Atom, Berber Song. Disc 2: Al-Hadra; Zeed Al Maal; Power Plant; Salvia; Green Screen; Sidi Rabi.Personnel: Mike Rivard: bass, sinter, bass kalimba; Dean Johnston: drums; John Medeski: B3, piano, electric piano, clavinet, mellotron, melodica; . Brahim Fribgane: oud, percussion, voice; Mister Rourke: DJ; Duke Levine: guitar; Thomas Workman: flute (Disc 2: 1, 2).