Less than a week before the formal commencement of Burlington Vermont’s Discover Jazz Festival, Club d’Elf set the bar high for the fortieth anniversary celebration of that annual event. Currently in the ongoing process of recognizing a significant milestone of its own—a quarter century mixing exotic strains of rhythm and melody into an ever-so-heady blend—the Massachusetts-based band also continues to make up for lost time visiting Vermont.
Since Mike Rivard and company’s last appearance in the Green Mountains—in June of 2019 at the Queen City’s Red Square—the group’s now made four treks north from their home in 2023 alone, this latest an offering of two sets at Foam Brewers. It was a most(ly) apropos soundtrack to a picturesque full moon evening on the Lake Champlain waterfront, despite the fact many restive attendees didn’t heed Rivard’s caveat regarding devices and conversation.
Starting right on time, Club d’Elf wasted no time invoking its collective muse via “Zeed Al Maal.” Slowly but surely establishing one groove after another in the most insinuating fashion, the band went from jamming into “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal,” then on to “Dream Wanderer” and “Sand,” during all of which Rivard was acting as a combination of conductor, lightning rod and flashpoint for imagination.
The quintet was at no loss for ideas in the course of this virtually uninterrupted string of an hour or so. And no one overplayed either: when one first melodic/rhythmic pattern became static or dissolved, the founder and leader used his sintir to quickly find a fresh one, either a more upbeat progression or one sufficiently intriguing to further spark the fivesome’s level of inspiration.
Primarily through the use of crisp Fender Rhodes piano flurries (and at a couple junctures a melodica), keyboardist Paul Schultheis may have been most prominent (other than Rivard) in the midst of all this action. But guest guitarist Rob Compa distinguished himself as well, his angular, glistening runs recalling Bill Connors’ best work in the electric Return To Forever circa Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor,1973). One of the Dopapod fretboarders’ more exploratory interludes brought a wide smile to the bandleader’s otherwise stoic visage.
Compa’s band mate in the aforementioned quartet, drummer Neal Evans, was integral to the mesmerizing momentum. With but a few assertive breaks to boost the pace and/or provide transitions, ‘Fro’ was nevertheless constantly percolating at his kit to provide a foundation for the collective: in doing so he was often in time with, but occasionally in counterpoint to Rivard (especially after he had switched to electric bass).
It was uncanny how turntable-ist Mister Rourke integrated his beats, scratches and snippets of spoken words with what proceeded in front of him. The understated tone of it all was perfectly hypnotic and thus rendered all the more intrusive Ryan Montbleau’s ersatz rapping on “Pacing Like Prince.”
Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s sit-in after the set break gave the lie to the usual success of such intervals with Club d’Elf. On “Power Plant,” his instrument sounded out-of-proportion in the exotic mix, effectively camouflaging the rest of the musicians as they conjured nuances to fill the open air room.
To that point, it had seemed somewhat odd that few back and forth exchanges had occurred within the tiny stage area—perhaps due to the novelty of the Dopapod members with the three Club mainstays?—and while a couple tentative ones occurred with Gordon in tow, the sextet didn’t pursue them extensively.
The remaining fivesome picked up right where they’d left off following the latter’s departure though. They unfortunately didn’t conjure up quite the same trance-like atmosphere as earlier in the evening, but as this second set wound down through Frank Zappa’s “King Kong,” the players reaffirmed this night’s overriding impression of musicianly unity in the spontaneous spirit of the moment.
No wonder that, exiting the venue into the clear, cool early summer night, the man in the moon looked like he had a delighted (but slightly loopy) grin on his face.