“John Medeski, Mellotrons and A Mountain of Majoun” Album Review: Electric Moroccoland/So Below March 31, 2011 By Chris May
Boston-based Club D’Elf describes itself as a “Moroccan-dosed psychedelic dub and jazz collective.” It is the sort of band that gives self-medication a good name, and it will reconfigure your synapses, in a good way, if you let it.
Founded by bassist Mike Rivard in 1998, the group has a rolling line-up of jazz, avant rock and Moroccan trance players which is centered, on this double-disc, around Rivard, keyboardist John Medeski, oudist Brahim Fribgane and drummer Erik Kerr. In addition to acoustic and electric basses, Rivard plays the sintir, the three-stringed, deep-pitched lute at the heart of Moroccan gnawa trance music, and Fribgane doubles on Moroccan percussion. Medeski is heard on eight different keyboards, including such arcane delights as the Mellotron and Wurlitzer electric piano. Among the 25 or so other musicians making guest and cameo appearances are saxophonists Joe Maneri, Allan Chase, Tom Hall and Joel Springer; guitarists David Tronzo, Duke Levine, Randy Roos and David Johnston; trumpeter Tom Halter; turntablists Mister Rourke and DJ Logic; viola player Mat Maneri; and Ghanaian lunga drummer Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna.
Together, these guys sound like the biggest collection of seasoned stoners ever assembled in one studio. This may or may not be literally true, but there’s no doubt where Rivard is coming from. He got the name for Club D’Elf from psychedelic explorer Terence McKenna, whose voice is woven into the second disc’s “Trance Meeting Pt.1.” McKenna said he communed with “elf-like entities” on some of his travels, and it’s a fair bet Rivard has done so too (just saying).
At its best, Club D’Elf makes electro-acoustic trance music of the highest order. At its infrequent worst, it lacks unity of purpose. The less than overwhelming moments occur on the first disc in the package, Electric Moroccoland, which is a head-on, unmediated and occasionally awkward collision between jam band and gnawa music. The weak links are the guitarists, who don’t always seem comfortable with the gnawa paradigm and tend to fall back on prog-like noodling. But the irritation is minor, and Medeskiâ€”centerstage on Wurlitzer electric piano, organ, Mellotron, piano and clavinetâ€”is out of this world intoxicating. The Moroccans cook up a storm too when they get in front. The best track is a six-minute cover of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” where rock and Morocco get genuinely symbiotic; the second best is a six-minute cover of Morphine’s “Rope On Fire,” featuring the unearthly vocals of Lotfi Tiken.
The second disc, So Below, has no weak spots and is a minor masterpiece. There’s more jazz to be heard, from the half dozen reed and brass players; spoonfuls of Dr John-like swamp rock from the guitarists, who are grittier this time out; and less gnawa. Fribgane is the only Moroccan musician, and he’s heard on just one track. Medeski adds Moog, Rhodes and analog synthesizer to his palette.
Like the first disc, So Below is all about trance, but it comes out of the deep ends of jazz, funk and blues. This provides the close focus sometimes missing on Electric Moroccoland, and gives the music a mojo of giant proportions. The combined nine minutes of “Trance Meeting Pt.1” and “Trance Meeting Pt.2,” both featuring Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna, open with Terence McKenna’s voice recommending “a moment of complete abandonment to the irrational,” and follow the advice. But the best track is a mesmerizing seven-minute cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down,” featuring vocalist and guitarist David Johnston. Delta blues meets swamp rock in excelsis. Johnston’s second track, “Pharoah,” another blues, this time lasting almost eight minutes, is almost as good.
The world needs more Moroccan-dosed psychedelic dub and jazz collectives. Don’t miss out on this one.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Overture; Sand; Ghir Khoudouni; Madrecita; Sunshine Of Your Love; Scorpionic; Mogador; Bendir Done That; Berber Song; Sidi Rabi; Ambib; Instar; Rope On Fire.
Personnel: John Medeski: Wurlitzer electric piano, organ, Mellotron, piano, clavinet; Mike Rivard: sintir, double bass, electric bass, handclaps; Brahim Fribgane: oud, resonator guitar, dumbek, bendir, karakab, tarija, cajon, handclaps; Erik Kerr: drums; Mister Rourke: turntables; David Tronzo: slide guitar; Geoff Scott: rhythm guitar; Duke Levine: guitars; Randy Roos: guitars; Alain Mallet: accordion, synthesizer; Mat Maneri: electric viola (10); Kousmat Mohammed: tarija (10); Dean Johnston: drums (9, 11, 13); Matt Kilmer: percussion (6, 8); Hassan Hakmoun: vocals (1, 5); Lotfi Tiken: vocals (13).
Tracks: Getting’ Squinty; Middle Pillar; So Below; Salvia; I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down; Trance Meeting Pt.1; Trance Meeting Pt.2; As Above; End Of Firpo; Pharoah; Propeller; Taint Too.
Personnel: John Medeski: Wurlitzer electric piano, analog synthesizer, Moog, clavinet, Rhodes, organ, piano; Mike Rivard: sintir, acoustic bass, electric bass, tamboura, prepared bass, claps; Erik Kerr: drums; Scott Craggs: ambient guitar; Reeves Gabrels: guitar; Duke Levin: slide guitar, 12-string guitar; Randy Roos: electric guitar, resonator guitar; Gerry Leonard: guitar; David Johnston: vocals and guitar (5, 10); Mat Maneri: electric viola (4, 11); Allan Chase: alto saxophone (3, 4, 6, 7); Tom Hall: tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone (3, 4, 6, 7); Joel Springer: tenor saxophone (3, 4, 6, 7); Dana Colley: electric baritone saxophone (5); Joe Maneri: tenor saxophone (11); Eric Hipp: tenor saxophone (11); Tom Halter: trumpet (11); Tommy Benedetti: drums (5, 10); Dave Mattacks: drums (12); J. Hilt: drums (8, 12); Brahim Fribgane: karakab (6); Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna: lunga (6, 7, 8); Matt Kilmer: percussion (3, 9); Mister Rourke: turntables; DJ Logic: turntables; others.