Club d’Elf, Mercury Lounge, NYC- 3/31/02
NYC ROLL-TOP: The Red Herring
The old dude was clearly out of his gourd. But he was also a red herring. I stood there watching him for a whole set of music by Club d’Elf thinking that he was the bandleader. After all, he was obviously older than everybody else on the platform, and he sat – looking dignified – at center stage with his saxophone and clarinet. The short, squat man was dressed in nice black pants and shirt connected by suspenders with a pocket-watch chain emerging from one of his pockets. He was bald, and a white, bushy beard – no mustache – positively sprouted from the bottom half of his face.
He played the part, too. He sat for the whole show. When the music grew, he waved his arms wildly and closed his eyes tightly. Occasionally, he would bend over and scream-sing a streamed mix of baby-babble gobbledygook and harshly melodic scatting into the sax mic. I watched him. So did the musicians on stage, which included John Medeski on a whole buncha keyboards, Eric Kalb from Deep Banana Blackout on drums, and others. I thought he was some crazy avant-free-jazz conductor. Near the end of the first set, when bassist Mike Rivard introduced the band, I realized that the reedman – Joe Maneri – was merely a special guest and that it was actually the mostly unassuming Rivard who led the ensemble.
Club d’Elf is his bag and it always has been. I knew that the group was more a collective than a band, with only one (or a few) steady members. I was just unsure which ones they were. It began as a regular gig at the Lizard Lounge in the green pastures of Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few regulars came and went, and a double-album was issued by Grapeshot/Live Archive highlighting some of the collaborations. The Club, as it were, doesn’t really seem to have a standard repertoire (though there were some charts littered about the stage), though they certainly have a common approach and sound.
There were eight musicians onstage for most of the set: Rivard, Medeski, Kalb, Joe Maneri (the old dude) on reeds, Mat Maneri (his son) on electric viola (or was it violin?), Mr. Rourke on turntables, a random extra percussionist, and – the key to the band – Brahim Fribgane. It is Fribgane that seemingly transforms the unit from an all-star cast into a rolling textural revue. It was his percussion – and, later, his oud (a weird lookin’ Middle Eastern lute-like situation) – that the band centered around. There was melody, for sure, but it was secondary. This was okay. Mat Maneri played some interesting stuff, but my brain tends to automatically file any electric violin as utterly distasteful. The younger Maneri contributed more effectively by playing wah-muted rhythms.
There was rhythm, too, but I wouldn’t call Club d’Elf a groove outfit. Surely, they did groove, but it wasn’t so directed that it was a single-minded funk. It was too thick and polyrhythmic for that. At one point during the set, the music broke down to a duet between Fribgane and Mr. Rourke. Three of the musicians onstage – Medeski, Kalb, and Rivard – clapped along. Each clapped different rhythms, and each was exactly right. The polyrhythms actually allowed the music to live in a space somewhere between free jazz and groove music: tight enough to stay focused, but big enough for myriad unexpected pleasures.
The accidental transposition of Joe Maneri as bandleader was interesting to me, because it gave me a center to the music. His actions became the focus, and what I metaphorically interpreted all the other music around. It made for a nice and interesting puzzle. When I realized my mistake, the sound of the whole ensemble shifted with my ear. The music made a little more sense, though it wasn’t as nicely mysterious. Even with the correct alignment, though, the band made a vast and rich sound that, while certainly cluttered, was never tired sounding. There was plenty of constantly shifting room for the ear to explore, for both the listeners and the musicians.