Improper Bostonian
January 31-February 13, 2001
Elf Power

 In Press

Club d’Elf’s revolving cast of genre-splicing virtuosos get submolecular onstage and on disc.

Musicians gather in a circle around Mike Rivard’s pulsing electric or acoustic bass. Erik Kerr lays down a wicked funk or jungle beat, drawing percussive contrasts from tabla ace Jerry Leake or Brahime Fribgane, who also plays the oud. Jere Faison floats disembodied voices from his sampling keyboard.

Guitar might be added by Reeves Gabrels, who long scorched the fretboard for David Bowie, or Mary Chapin Carpenter sideman Duke Levine. Other tantalizing sounds may enter the mix from electric violinist Mat Maneri, didjeridoo maverick Dr. Didg, jam-savvy colorist DJ Logic, or groove-organ kingpin John Medeski. Often, the revolving cast is rounded out by horn players like Tom Hall or avante-garde patriarch Joe Maneri.

The best part is that a listener doesn’t have to go to the experimental corners of Manhattan to catch such a communion. One only needs to visit the basement confines of Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge, or listen to the new double CD As Above. That is where one enters the spellbinding world of Club d’Elf.

“This is the kind of thing I’ve been immersing myself into the last few years,” says conductor Rivard, who composes the dub/trance/world grooves in advance with drummer Kerr, but leaves plenty open to the improvising guests. “I listen to a lot of North African music, and try to delve into the mysteries of that, to listen to a lot of drum-n-bass and dub, and try to find the common elements.”

“It’s certainly more of a club than it is a band,” says the session veteran, who made many virtuoso friends during his days with the Either/Orchestra, Natraj (A world-jazz group in which he still plays with Leake and Mat Maneri), Morphine side project the Hypnosonics, the Story, and Paula Cole. “My main hope was that I could continue to play with all of the musicians who I really love playing with, and everybody’s schedules are so crazy that I knew I could never really have a band that everyone could devote all their time to.”

In early 1998, Rivard presented his concept to Lizard booker Billy Beard, and Club d’Elf was born, its name inspired by the neo-psychedelic author Terence McKenna. “It’s more of a spirit or an energy,” Rivard explains. “There is this elf thing, these little energy deities. When you get down to the submolecular level, they seem to be there, grinning an spinning around and playing tricks with you.”

As for his broad musical scope, Rivard cites his youth in Minnesota, when he turned into everything from Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead to Return to Forever, Fela Kuti, James Brown, John Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Comedy is another inspiration, especially the writings of George Meyer, best known for his twisted jokes on The Simpsons.

“That’s the beauty of comedy, where you’re set up for one expectation, then suddenly, something else comes along, and it throws the brain into the momentary state of imbalance,” Rivard says. “What we do with Club d’Elf is any one song can have a number of layers of rhythm. It can be interpreted one way or another. We might play an electronica-like Fatboy Slim kinda thing, and underneath it, there’s this Moroccan 6/8 that’s boiling and waiting to rise up. Suddenly it comes up, and I can only venture what it means for the listener.”

Such percolating punchlines are shaped by Rivard’s signals, often to isolate two musicians in simpatico dialogue around his anchoring bass (which he sometimes alters through loops or string-muting alligator clips). “I really think of myself as a DJ more than anything,” he says. “I’m trying to listen to what each person’s doing, and focus on different elements, like I’m playing with faders on a mixing console.”

Rivard took that concept to another level on As Above, The sublime CD debut of Club d’Elf, recorded live at the Lizard over six nights, weaving 19 musicians in and out of the mix. From hypnotic ambient jams to rocking jazz-fusion that evokes ’70s Miles Davis (taken up a notch when Gabrels and the Maneris cross flight-paths), the CDs dispense a heady earful usually reserved for those who descend into the lair of the Lizard.

“Having done this for three years now, I have a pretty good idea of what combinations of people work well together,” says Rivard, who next convenes Club d’Elf February 8 and 22 (the latter date wih Medeski, Logic, and the Maneris set to join it.) “It’s been like a laboratory. We have an audience that continues to come out, and grows with the music, and seems to enjoy us as far as we go and as many risks as we take.”

-Paul Robicheau

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