Fairfield County Weekly
Past Future: Club d’Elf plays god with musical styles old and new.
The next time someone says, “There’s no good music today,” I’m handing him a copy of As Above: Live at the Lizard Lounge. Surely the most engaging CD to cross my desk this year, it is a winding dreamscape of an album with intense moments of percussion and bass, Moroccan mysticism and trance-inducing DJ undertones. A fluid group with revolving members that draws from some of today’s most musically advanced performers, Club D’Elf combines talents like DJ Logic (Medeski, Martin & Wood, Project Logic), futuristic drummer Kenwood Dennard (Miles Davis, Sting, Jaco Pastorius) and master oud player Brahim Frigbane (Peter Gabriel, Morphine). This live recording is reminiscent of a Miles Davis fusion experiment or a John McLaughlin Mahavishnu ensemble for the New Millennium. Every style from North African to funk to trip-hop has been explored, picked apart, stretched, squashed and molded into something new.
To get at the heart of Club d’Elf, you have to listen to the bassist, Mike Rivard. He not only mans the bass throttle, decelerating to a deep steady creep and accelerating to free-association slaps, he’s the group’s conceiver and conductor. Four years ago, Rivard started the project at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass., and the resulting free-jazz experiments soon took ownership of the club’s Thursday nights. The just-released debut CD, As Above, represents some of the choicest live cuts from those weekly gigs. Thank God/Jaweh/Allah they were recording.
At the Lizard Lounge, Club d’Elf played on a central carpet surrounded by the audience, lending an intimacy and conversational playing style to the shows rare to Western music. The group still regularly performs at the club, where Rivard says, “There’s not so much separation between audience and musician. The power structure amongst the musicians is very fluid. A traditional stage setup where you’re just facing out doesn’t work as well with the kind of stuff we do.”
Now that the group has taken to touring, their challenge is to recreate that sense of open dialogue on traditional stages.
“We like challenges,” says Rivard, “and hopefully we can draw the audience into the language that we’re speaking. And by the end of the night, everybody’s on the same page.”
As languages go, Club d’Elf has developed its own, framed around world-influenced and contemporary sounds, traditional instruments and modern electronics based on the individual proficiencies of the performers. The latest touring group matches Rivard with John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood on keyboards, Brahim Frigbane on the oud (a Middle eastern lute), Mat Maneri on electric violin, Mister Rourke on turntables and newcomer Eric Kalb from Deep Banana Blackout on drums. To keep the sound evolving and unpredictable, Rivard doesn’t practice with the members as a whole. He sends them each charts and CDs, but lets each night pave its own way musically.
“I look at it like a director putting together a movie,” says the bassist. “There might be some special effects, so the actors are doing their lines against a blue screen and they don’t really know what’s going to be behind them. I get together with the individual musicians and go over different concepts and different lines with the idea that they’re not hearing everybody else that’s going to be playing on the song. When the performance actually takes place, it’s a surprise for everybody.”
Perhaps the only constant in the mesh of interwoven sounds is the percussive Moroccan flair based on Rivard’s study and Frigbane’s native musical tongue. The Gnawa style the group employs comes from music brought by West African slaves to Morocco, music used to induce trance and support healing ceremonies. Mid-set, Rivard will pick up the sintir, a three-stringed bass lute with a 500-year-old history, whose hollowed wooden body acts as drum and bass combined. He and Frigbane, a Moroccan native, invoke ancient Arabic sounds through an inter-changing line-up of percussion instruments, including the bendir frame drum, lined with snare strings and the goblet-shaped doumbek, with its deep low and crystal high extremes. But nothing is static or unrefined. As Rivard says, “It’s not like one of those lame world things where you draw upon a culture by using the sound of it. The Arabic and North African stuff is grounded in a pretty deep understanding, but it also becomes another language.” Every traditional sound is infused with the new. Every unstructured song is a loosely arranged flight that follows the musicians’ nightly whims.
For the performers, Club d’Elf is a place to engage their experimental fantasies outside of their traditional projects. While Medeski surely gets some leeway for free-jam in MMW, in Club d’Elf he can experiment in and out of styles without restraint. Among his arsenal of keyboard instruments, Medeski uses the Mellotron, an original sampling keyboard with real taped sounds of violins and flutes.
“He’s developed this really individual style with it,” says Rivard, “where he can bend notes and play micro-tones in-between notes.” In other words, all that’s hidden between the black and white keys on a piano. “The indigenous music we draw upon is all based on micro-tones like bending a note to other notes,” says Rivard. “He’s able to do that on that keyboard, and gives it an entirely different sound. It’s a Mellotron and it has a history of use…but the sounds he gives it when he plays a Berber song or a Gwana song, it transcends the instrument and becomes something else, a voice. These are influences that just come up within the music. They may happen in the strangest of places where you have a Squarepusher-type drum-and-bass groove or a funk thing and suddenly it morphs into a Berber song. For us, it’s all part of the same thing. We’re not really thinking of it in terms of categories, it’s just developing a language.”
While the music Club d’Elf produces is wildly transient, the intuitive relationship among the performers allows them to change directions at the same time. For specific movements, Rivard acts as conductor. During a song, he might point to Kalb and Maneri, count down, and then the other musicians will drop out.
“It’s like a DJ at a mixing console bringing up different faders,” says the bassist. “It’s a way to give the music a different texture and let it breathe a little bit before everybody else comes back in howling.”
Well-placed spacing is crucial for the success of these jams, otherwise the audience would hear only thickly layered mud, the intricacies indistinguishable. Even DJ Mister Rourke will not scratch and mix throughout the entire performance, but on occasion will let the groove lapse into a suspension of trance and beats. Everything Club d’Elf produces is grounded in rhythm. The performers bring sounds together in the tradition of an African circle: centered, multi-layered, completely separate and completely united simultaneously.
“What I really try to go for is more of a group conversation,” says Rivard, “where everybody’s soloing and nobody’s soloing. Just a back and forth commentary. The traditional roles get subverted and reversed.”
It’s like a time-travel machine equipped with a sweet set of speakers, jumping between periods and places as you lean back, close your eyes and let your ears enjoy the ride.