Boston Phoenix
March 1 , 2001
Live & On Record
Miles of Music: Club d’Elf

 In Press

A week ago Thursday Club d'Elf celebrated both the release of its debut disc, As Above: Live at the Lizard Lounge (Live Archive), and three years of regular performances at the intimate Mass. Ave. nightspot. And as if that weren't enough to pack the Lizard, the program featured keyboard virtuoso John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood, whose presence guarantees both a capacity crowd and an impeccable standard of musicianship.

Not that Club d'Elf needs him. The success of the bi-weekly residency is due in part to the way Mike Rivard surrounds himself with local rock and jazz musicians who can take the simplest of materials — a rhythm vamp, a melodic fragment — and stretch them into epic and hypnotic experiments. The line-up Thursday included roots guitarist Duke Levine, drummer Erik Kerr, percussionist/oud-player Brahim Fribgane, and the free-jazz father-and-son duo Mat and Joe Maneri on violin and reeds, plus Rivard on bass and Medeski on keyboards. The particulars are important, because the mood, the outlook, and the success of this type of music — a sort of pan-ethnic, jazz-dub-funk-electro-rock fusion — hinges on the qualities and the personalities of the players.

Depending on the night, Club d'Elf can be ethereal or evil, funky or flippant, dense or discordant. Maybe it was the effect of their having driven up from New York in a light snowstorm, but the crew were in an especially ragged mode last Thursday. The vamps were typically deep and rock solid, but they often exploded into shitstorms of squawk and skronk. The Maneris and Medeski led the way into the out-there, engaging in a three-way musical conversation that had all the anger and power of a lovers' quarrel. They prodded and poked one another relentlessly. Joe Maneri traced elliptical sax or clarinet arguments in the air. Mat Maneri bowed distorted violin growls. And Medeski jutted in with keyboard fluctuations that had more to do with trashy stompbox abuse than with jazz piano skills.

Despite these moments of unstructured improvisation, Club d'Elf is still a controlled experiment. Rivard stood at the center of the circle and directed the music with his bass and his hands: segues, riffs, entrances, exits, shifts. When the groove was fairly continuous, he acted like a dub producer, raising and lowering different instruments in the mix. With a few brief motions he could bring Fibgane's intricate dumbek drumming to the fore or pair off members of the group into intimate duets. It's a form of improvisational arranging that gives individual musicians time to shine yet keeps the music focused and direct.

Rivard also knew when to step back and let the players find their own way — which usually led to some sort of full-bore, hair-raising freakout. At those times, the music most resembled the psychedelic smear of Miles Davis in the '70s. Which makes sense. Club d'Elf is a contemporary take on the fusion experiments of Miles Davis's Live Evil or On the Corner — just substitute turntables, samplers, synthesizers, and jungle breakbeats for Miles's sitars, Fender Rhodes, and wah-wah trumpet. In each case you get an expansive, improvised style of rhythm-based music where form and melody are less important than texture, timbre, and sound. And that also connects Club d'Elf to the wave of anti-ego, post-rock, pro-groove thinking that's infected the American musical landscape, from indie rock to electronica to the neo-hippie scene. Club d'Elf's advantage is that it stands somewhere in the middle, influenced by all those genres but committing to none.

-Michael Endleman

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