March 3, 2001
Club d’Elf/2.28.01/New York City
I sometimes like to pretend I’m listening to a song I’ve heard a few hundred times as if it was the first. Like I’m someone I gave a CD or tape to check out and examine each note with a fresh point of view. But it doesn’t quite match the exhiliration of really experiencing a band I’ve never checked out before. Especially when it’s one preceded by a torrent of positive word of mouth. Sure, that floats all over about different groups and taste is subjective. There was just something about the seriousness conveyed every time someone mentioned Club d’Elf that led me to believe this was going to be for real. Anytime I see John Medeski & DJ Logic sitting in with anyone, I have to assume that they have chops and not as some bar of judgement but more my sense of their desire to exist at a certain power level of creative force. I’ve witnessed that time and time again in Medeski, Martin & Wood, Project Logic and their various other gigs. In the end, though, the lion’s share of Club d’Elf’s efforts at Tonic the other night were carried mightily by people that most of us have probably never heard of before.
They opened with no sustainable beat, just feeling around with a slightly stronger murmur popping up here and there. Nothing broke out of the low fog they seemed to be developing. Club d’Elf founder Mike Rivard crept in with a five note blueprint that drew Logic on top to kick up the energy. This was met and increased even higher by special guest Joe Maneri on alto saxophone. Seated front and center, Joe was the elder statesman of the group. He held the lead in their efforts whenever he let loose on the alto or tenor sax, clarinet or vocals that ranged from English to gibberish to what sounded like a Middle Eastern dialect. Joe upped the stakes for that first tune as easily as you’d flip a switch. His squeaking sax and clarinet were grounded by some old school, 70’s type funk phatness by Rivard that were sharpened by Logic’s cuts. It all blended into some wild progressive jazz construction fueled by the bass and percussion which was handled by Erik Kerr on the kit and Brahim Fribqane on doumbek, both d’Elf regulars. To the side, I could swear I heard the softer string expressions of an electric guitar but I could swear I didn’t see one so I had to get closer. When I got up front, I found Mat Maneri running a bow over an electric 6 string violin tuned to sound as if it was one of our many rippers.
As the energy of the chaotic jam built, Joe fed some improv’d vocals into his mic that reminded me of some of the more interesting characters I’ve found wandering the subway system. That took us to the point where the jam unravelled, leaving only the drummer kickin’ it quickly on the hat while everyone went back to the beginning contemplation. The doumbek was perfectly mic’d so I could hear every detail off Fribqane’s fingertips. It stood out all the more in the midst of Medeski’s extended spaces and led to an instant lift of energy by Eric Kerr through a strong line of dancebeats. The rest of the song proceeded through the acid/progressive jazz area on a bass heavy groove held together by the percussion. On top, Medeski’s dreamy tones floated around the high pitched nature of the sax, clarinet and violin until they reached the end of the second arc and tailed off.
Rivard grabbed a mic at that point to introduce everyone but I didn’t get a full sense of what this act’s about (peoplewise) until I got to their thorough website [www.clubdelf.com]. Beyond the five core players, there are 48 “special guests,” “rotating cast” and “occasional conspirators” who range around just about every instrument you could desire. I’ve heard that their regular gigs in Cambridge, MA focus more on them which can be heard on their first release, Live at the Lizard Lounge.
This was the point where they invited up a second saxophone player and trombonist but the opening direction of the piece was taken by Fribqane on the oud, a ten-string acoustic instrument of Persian origin. The Eastern theme was off on the energy of his hands, complimented by Joe’s clarinet which reminded me of a Bar Mitzvah. They kept it going for a while on the drums and bass while the horns, keys and violin stepped out for varying intervals to go in independent directions or pairs or trios. The beat turned tribal at that point and Joe was feeling it to the point that he put down his instruments and spouted another mix of language into the mic. It came from his throat as if he was calling from a hill and his voice was met by Mat Maneri’s cry from a clay roof at sunset. When they climaxed and turned away from that groove, the crowd was too stunned to give an ovation that was certainly due. That awe set over the audience for the rest of the show.
Rivard’s crawling residual on the bass linked the movements. The next began with some dark sounding, spread out single notes. This spaced it out a bit but they soon turned right back into the progressive orchestra they seemed at their highest levels in the first song (but with two more horns!). The horns were in the spotlight at that point, smoothing things out into more of a coherent melody. The beat of that movement isn’t one I can clearly peg to one genre or another but I can tell you that it was in tune with the audience’s need to move. The crowd and the band interacted seemlessly like that all night, reacting to one another as the energies built and tailed off, up, higher, down, higher and higher – swinging the continuous arch further and further.
They ended the set with another jazz based groove and were beckoned heartily for an encore that they provided happily. The line was already brimming for the late show and each expectant face was met by smiles passing by them on the way out. Some people stayed on for the second show and some headed over to the Wetlands to catch Robert Randolph, Topaz and Wayne Krantz. In total, I spent $12 to see four extremely inspirational groups of musicians thanks to the “man on the scene.” (caw, caw). The cost relative to what the music’s giving me is so criminally low I’ll be hopping the train up to Westchester to ask Bubba for a pardon.
Toward the end of the set, they brought up a singer. The vocals were a little lost through the sound system but I got the gist of it as street poetry. He was testifying about heart and soul and the trials of his existence mixing ponderings, declarations and possible answers. The band continued behind him creating a greater challenge of taking it all in and took it a long way. Both the vocalist and the players had a lot to say and we were very happy to hear it all.
Club d’Elf will be playing back at the Lizard Lounge on the 8th and 22nd of March so drop on in if you’re in the area or make the trip cuz it’ll be totally worth it. With the potential variations astronomically high, I can’t wait to see what different form they’ll take the next time I can check them out.