So I guess now I’m a fan of dub? Or at least of some of its hybrids in world music, like the Turkish psychedelic dub of Baba Zula, the American Southwestern dub experiments of Calexico, and now this world-dub-jazz hybrid of Club d’Elf. The third studio full-length album from this Boston-based collective is a big double album with an expansive sound and grooves that never quit.
Club d’Elf is led by Mike Rivard, who is the only constant member over the group’s 24 year run. He plays bass guitar and sintir (a three-stringed bass lute of Morocco). That sintir is kind of key to the music on You Never Know, I gather, since I’m not familiar with the Elf oeuvre. But over the past few years Rivard suffered a major health crisis in the form of a pulmonary embolism that all but killed him and left him in a deep depression. He finally found emotional equilibrium by throwing himself into mastering the sintir.
Fast forward a bit to where Rivard gathers a bunch of musician friends and collaborators to begin tracking the songs for this album, done largely live and with minimal overdubs. (Which is strange to say about dub, but this isn’t classic dub, right?) The result is these 10 tracks that range from chopped jazz, rock and traditional songs mixed with originals, all seething with psychedelic guitars and keyboards, and pulsing with circular trance beats. The musicians in addition to Rivard on bass and sintir are Dean Johnston (drums), DJ Mister Rourke (turntables), Paul Schultheis and John Medeski (vintage analog keyboards), Moroccan Brahim Fribgane (oud, vocals and percussion) and guitarists Duke Levine, David Fiuczynski and Kevin Barry.
The tracklist is evenly split with five originals and five existing works presented in very original versions – two traditional Moroccan songs, a traditional Sufi dance, and fusion from Frank Zappa, and Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul. I don’t know where to start, so I’ll start with something that’s familiar to me. The Davis-Zawinul fusion on Miles’s album In a Silent Way became one of my favorite grooves ever in the past five years or so. It’s the kind of music that doesn’t much lend itself to covers by other artists, and I know of only a couple who have tried, Carlos Santana and saxophonist Dave Liebman. But Club D’Elf finds the trance inducing heart of it, with a complex rhythm and stirring performances by the guitarists and especially Medeski on organ. And is that a bass clarinet or a synth mimicking one? Either way, it’s a great sound, and altogether this track is much more frisky than the original!
The Sufi traditional “Dervish Dance” is at the other end of Club d’Elf’s spectrum, although their version still introduces sly dub and psych touches. Listen for the choppy synth bits, swashes of slide guitar and other psych touches under Fribgane’s masterful oud melody and improvized soloing. The melodic line is matched by the bass at certain points; I suspect that’s Rivard’s sintir. I can usually take or leave music videos, but this “Dervish Dance” video that matches the track to a time lapse film of sand painting is truly hypnotic and beautiful.
One of the most interesting elements here – and there are plenty to go around – is in the rhythms. Moroccan music is particularly known for the chaabi rhythm, which takes a six-beat form and messes it up by putting the emphasis in different spots than you get in European music. If you want to understand it better, you should check out this splendid video by Moroccan American drummer Yogev Gabay, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching intricate rhythm schemes in popular music.
So one of the differences between the original “In A Silent Way” and this one is that the Elfs set it to a chaabi rhythm. They do that also with another fusion piece, Frank Zappa’s “King Kong,” first recorded on the Mothers of Invention’s live 1968 album Ahead of Their Time. It was notably covered by Jean-Luc Ponty, but both it and the original were in more or less straight Western time signatures, not this incredibly intricate Moroccan chaabi beat. “King Kong” is the final track here and the longest at more than 11 minutes, and it’s an absolute explosion of virtuosity. Just about everybody gets some solo time but Medeski in particular takes no prisoners, and Fiuczynski turns in an astoundingly intricate solo, which is followed by a restatement of the melody by organ, guitar and bass all in unison over that chaabi groove.
Those are sort of the high points for me on this long romp of an album. But that gives short shrift to the bluesy, trancey funk of “Boney Oscar Stomp,” the bliss-enducing trance rock of “Now Open Your Eyes,” the hypnotic exotica of “Golden Hour,” and the deeply weird frenetic space trance of “Dark Fish” that blends jazz-rock fusion with trippy turntabling. There’s plenty of funk too in the driving “Lalla Aisha In Jhaptal,” full of wah-wah guitar, funky horns with deep reverb, tabla, and vocal scat-like singing of the tabla line. (The song is named for Princess Lala Aisha, who was known for her active role in Moroccan government and diplomacy in mid 20th century, including being the first female ambassador from the Arab world when she became Morocco’s ambassador to the U.K. in 1965.)
Club d’Elf emphasize the trance features of gnawa folk song “Zeed Al Maal” with an infinite loop of bass and drums. They make it their own with lots of pedal steel guitar, which I assume is from Kevin Barry, who apparently can play pretty much any kind of guitar. “Allah Ya Moulana” brings the exotica – it sounds like what I imagine a Moroccan nightclub in the 1960s was like, heightened with mild doses of psychedelia from guitars and keyboards – Rivard shows his jazz bona fides on upright bass. This one’s another highlight, for sure.
Fans of the jazz rock fusion of Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, and anyone who likes North African music but isn’t a purist about it, will find a lot to like on this sprawling set. Club d’Elf’s You Never Know is utterly amazing on first listen and offers depths that infinitely reward close attention. So turn yourself over to the trance, lose yourself in the beat and the bass, and enjoy.
(Face Pelt Records, 2022)
Club d’Elf is on Bandcamp and other streaming services, and they have a website. They’re playing a series of shows in the northeastern U.S. in April; find dates and other info on their website.