April 8, 2011 Berkshire Eagle Club d’Elf: Band of changing players By Jeremy D. Good
Club d'Elf is a band without members, playing music without category. It's by no means a solo projectâ€”group interplay is keyâ€”but bassist, musical ringleader and seer-in-chief Mike Rivard is the only one who absolutely, positively has to be there for this amorphously defined ensemble to be considered in the house.
For any given gig, he assembles an ever-changing coterie of like-minded musical shapeshifters to bring his pluralistic vision of self-styled trance music into living color. When Club d'Elf plays Helsinki Hudson tomorrow night, it will include regulars like the DJ, Mister Rourke, and drummer Dean Johnston, as well as big-name collaborator John Medeskiâ€”the keyboard wizard of celebrated avant-jazzsters Medeski, Martin and Wood. The group will also feature multi-instrumentalist Brahim Fribgane, another longtime peer who played a key role in the development of Club d'Elf's sound.
â€œPeople don’t always know what to make of it. The players change, the music changesâ€”it's just a little bit too much of an unknown for some people,â€ Rivard says in a telephone interview from Somerville, Mass. Club d'Elf, a Boston-based ensemble, has been gigging since 1998. It specializes in a groove-oriented synthesis of jazz, electronica, space-rock, andâ€”most unexpectedlyâ€”Moroccan folk music. When stage conditions allow, musicians assemble in a circle (with Rivard in the center), and patiently lower their musical voices into a burbling cauldron of sound that ranges from the deeply introspective to the dancefloor-ready. Though it is infused with the borderless spirit of free jazz, the music is nearly always held together by an omnipresent beat.
â€œThe crux of the music we do is trance music, and trance music for me means that you’re getting in touch with different energies that are not always part of the club experience,â€ he says. â€œWe think of it ritualistically or ceremonially, to hopefully provide something where people can take a journey, forget about the world for a few hours and get in touch with some aspect of their inner lives. And if not, to at least dance and have a good time with their friends.â€
It's the Moroccan influence that truly pushes the sound into new areasâ€”beyond jazz, beyond jamband. The band's new double-album, â€œElectric Morrocoland/So Below,â€ devotes the first of its two CDs to exploration of that side. Fribgane, who got involved with Club d'Elf in its early days, is heavily featured.
When they first met, Rivard already possessed a fledgling interest in Moroccan music (particularly the earthy strain known as gnawa) but was a bit confounded by its unconventional rhythms. Fribgane grew up playing guitar and other instruments in Casablanca, but moved to the United States at age 22 and only then took up the distinctive Moroccan instruments the oud (often called a Middle Eastern lute) and the dumbek, a hand drum. When he was invited him to jam with d'Elf, the summit occasioned a melding of musical cultures. â€œWhen I started playing with Club d’Elf, I thought these guys were crazy. What’s wrong with them, why can’t they just play it straight? Why is it always so 'out'? The Moroccan music is very percussion [based] and straight music,â€ Fribgane says on the phone from New York City.
He soon understood the d'Elf gang were chiefly a crew of players with musical â€œday jobsâ€ in other bands, who enjoyed delving into a different style with Rivard. The system behind the gnawa rhythmâ€”filled with upbeats, with no obvious opening beat for each musical barâ€”was difficult to explain, but once the Westerners got it, it all clicked. (Rivard likens it to â€œbeing initiated into a secret society.â€)
â€œIt was great for me to be schooling these guys, but they were also schooling me on their side of the music,â€ Fribgane recalls. â€œThere’s not much improvising back home so I learned how to improvise with these guys. In a lot of ways, it’s a give and get. You learn something and you teach something.â€
To Rivard, experimentation is always in season. â€œWe think of it like a laboratory,â€ he says. “There's a sense between the musicians and the audience that we're creating an energy together.â€