May 30, 2001
A Great Night on Norfolk Street
It’s still a few weeks before the heat truly descends on NYC, turning the remnants of garbage on the streets into it’s annual glob of sour mash. For now, we’re in a bit of a cold and wet spell but I find that all the more reason to transcend physical reality with a bit of live music! As much as a demotivator the drudgery of our recent climate’s been, I popped on my headphones and hopped the subway down the lower east side last Wednesday. I was even more hesitant to go out because, even though they killed at the same venue a couple of months ago with John Medeski and DJ Logic, I didn’t feel Club d’Elf at Wetlands when they opened for The Slip the weekend before Jazzfest. Too electric, not much of the unique voice they expressed at the previously mentioned Tonic gig but, then again, Medeski & Logic were only two of about a half dozen guests that rocked that little place that night. No worries, though. Not only was last Wednesday night one more set of proof that d’Elf owns Tonic, but it wasn’t the only quality piece of group style musicianship on the block. Across the street, at Lansky Lounge, was the second night of an improv jam session with artists from a few different bands who know each other from the Boston/Berklee College scene. Bouncing back and forth across Norfolk St. proved to be one of the happiest nights of music I had in a while.
As soon as I walked into Tonic, I felt the same thrill from d’Elf that I did the first time. Characteristically for that venue, the set started half an hour late so I got there for the last song of the “8 o’clock” show. Brahim Fribqane was pickin’ the hell out of his oud, complementing Mat Maneri’s electric guitar tones on the violin while the rhythm section held a solid bottom for the sax player’s more fiery jazz blurts. It was the last song and there was about 45 minutes til the next set so I went over to the Lansky. $5!!!! Yet another example of how unbelievably spoiled we are, and here’s why: Matt Rubano (Ekene & the Source) on bass, Peter Stoltzman (KUDU) on keys, guitarist Dave Holmes (Actual Proof ), drummer Andy Siniese (Ekene & the Source) and Rich (whose last name I didn’t get) on percussion Rich (no affiliation). Extremely talented guys getting it on in what I didn’t know, at first, was a completely improvised show.
Before they played, Matt talked about using a different name every night they do this (there’ll be regular Wednesday gigs at the Lansky all summer). I think the one they settled on that night was Pogma. Anyway, they pushed off with some electronic soundscapes built on a strong bass line that stood out from the more velveteen feel of the rest of the group and the dance beats made me think this was going to be just another electronica themed gig. WRONG! That theme smoothed out into some lounge jazz (which is perfect cuz the Lansky has a very chill vibe while not forgetting that a little touch of aesthetic consideration can help) and played with that for a while until Matt started kicking out a bassline that sounded very familiar. I confirmed that it was, indeed, the Beastie Boys’ “Eggman.” After talking to the band at set break, I found out that only Matt & Andy realized they were playing it. Andy grabbed the line and came in with that great flourish of beats I love at the point where Eggman opens up. They went with that for a while and then moved into some more jazz and a bit of funk. At that point, I noticed it was 11 and I hadn’t heard more than a few minutes of d’Elf, which cost more than twice as much as the Lansky gig.
I walked into Tonic and my heart shot up the notches in my spine like it was propelled by a carnival hammer. Club d’Elf was in the middle of a solid Middle Eastern groove which is the style at the center of why I love them. I don’t know of many bands that work in Middle Eastern style/tones so, when d’Elf does it, I get excited. If you know of anyone else who has this going on, please let me know. Band leader Mike Rivard was on the stand up bass and I really thought that instrument meshed better with their overall sound more than the electric bass he switched to later but they each worked very well. On both, though, Mike had a set of aligator clips which he attached to the strings (on the standup, they went just above the bridge and, on the electric, they went about 3 inches in front of his right fingers). He told me that they lend a touch of chaos, acting as a more natural modulator, because he never quite knows exactly what’s going to come out when he pops them on. It sounded like it added a variance of fuzz to me but, then again, mine’s not the most well trained ear. From the Middle Eastern swing they had going on when I got there, Club d’Elf moved into a lighter jazz groove. I was really impressed how solidly Rivard held the line together without falling into the trap of playing the same phrase over and over again. It’s easy to get lulled into motion by that but Mike kept changing up the sequence and amount of notes he played, while not deconstructing the platform off of which Maneri and tenor saxophonist Eric Hipp were launching themselves. Hipp’s style pretty much stayed in the realm of discordant jazz but that was nice because it balanced the rapid fluidity of Eric Kerr’s dance beats on the kit. Most of the room was pretty chilled out, surprisingly, but there was another head not far from me who was grooving it out and we had a nice moment sharing how into it we were.
Club d’Elf’s next piece turned into a drum and bass pump after Rivard switched to the electric. He very responsibly led the action, monitoring and mellowing the build of Kerr’s drums and that Fribqane had going on the doumbek. This was where the action was at. Full force boogie. They showed an excellent sense of patience, staying together and extending the gradual upgrade of the pace until Rivard dropped out to let Hipp jump into the lead on top of the rhythm. They then shifted back to Mike and then Maneri came in on the violin but wasn’t given as much room as Hipp before Mike came back and then they all came together to bring the show to it’s finale. Rivard came to the mic to thank the crowd and asked, “was that tight?” The audience reaction was nothing less than extremely loud assent. Apparently, they’d been practicing for 7 days leading up to this gig and it was more than obvious.
The Lansky Lounge gig was supposed to go til 1:30am so I popped back across the street to find the musicians on set break. That’s where I learned this was an improv gig and will be every week. Musicians crack me up. No matter how well they do, unless it’s other-worldly, they’re usually very humble about what goes down and the spontaneous nature of that night’s play left them all a little unsure of themselves. What I heard before I left for d’Elf was solid and diverse so I was looking forward to whatever would come next. It was pretty relaxed cuz the room was filled with a few other musicians and a bunch of friendlies and I ended up out at the bar when the second set started. I was in the middle of a conversation about other upcoming shows and how varied the first set was when set # 2 started out with some latin beats and keytones. I say most of what they did was improv because there was one page of sheet music in front of Peter and a saxophonist they brought up.
At this point, Stu from Actual Proof was on bass, completely synergized with Dave which came as no surprise considering they’re bandmates. He didn’t lead the group as much as Matt did in the first set but that gave Peter more room to open it up. This was a treat for me because KUDU’s context is more tonal, more hue than fill and this was the first time I heard him play with anyone else (outside of an impromptu jam session at Velour Music’s studios a few weeks ago that was rudely cut short by the building’s landlord). The piece wasn’t all Latin, in fact, Dave & Stu didn’t really stay in one place too long (stylistically speaking) and Andy got up most of the way through the song and gave up the kit to a guy named Eli. Another distinct difference in style! Eli was crisp and worked the metal more, blending with the dominant theme but adding a bit more of a jazz swing on top. When the song was over, the sheet music was passed back and I noted that the title on it was “Brazilian Dorian Dream.” Very nice work.
The next jam seemed more with the improv motif. Dave Holmes built some ambience and Actual Proof’s keyboardist took Peter’s place, running some sliding scales a lot more than the single hits that Peter was up to. They established a nice flow in this extended work in progress which supressed the rhythm but then let it back up as Peter jumped in with another piece of percussion and the arc grew in trajectory. When the energy peaked and edged down the slope, I realized it was after 1am and a school night so I hit a cab after a quick caucus in the parking lot across the street.
Why should I be so surprised? I’m not really. This kind of stuff happens all the time in this city but it never ceases to be remarkable to me. I woke up in a dream of the moment with all of you present and I hope we all continue to appreciate the artists, and each other, as we have been.
Having a treasure trove’s worth of artists in this city is a never ending coffer that pays off every night of the week and, in this case, will do so every Wednesday for the next few months. Sir Joe Russo will be back on drums this week so you can be guaran-damn-teed that it’s going to be HOT! Even if you can’t double your pleasure with whatever’s going on across the way at Tonic, this improv gig at the Lansky Lounge is so fresh and interesting that you won’t bemoan only having one show to check out.
Club d’Elf will be doing their every other Thursday show at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA starting from May 31st through July. I heard these gigs are routinely packed and their Tonic shows are a great indication why. Between their proficiency in that room and the ever-lengthening list of collaborating artists they can jam with, I hope they soon establish a similar residency in New York.
– Howie Greenberg