Mike Rivard and Club d’Elf finally rehearse
– JON GARELICK | October 4, 2006
The scene was not atypical for a Thursday night at the Lizard Lounge: a mess of instruments including guitars, electric and acoustic bass, the three-stringed Moroccan instrument called the sintir, trap drums, and percussionist Jerry Leake’s tablas set off in a little Plexiglas crib (to prevent audio leaks and feedback), and in the middle of it all Mike Rivard, alternately playing the acoustic bass and stage-directing. The music has been building for several minutes, an impossibly complex lattice of cross-rhythms, and now he’s gesturing to guitarist Randy Roos on his left and electric-mandolinist Matt Glover on his right. What does he want them to do? Trade fours? How exactly do you count four bars in the midst of all this? Soon, though, with Rivard plucking running counterpoint, Roos and Glover are trading and overlapping lines and call-and-response riffs and the music continues to chug to a final bowed Rivard cadenza.
“That’s what happens when you don’t rehearse,” Rivard says about his impromptu stage-managing. “I just wanted them to play together.” And what was that crazy meter? “Four/four . . . well, really 12/8, it was that Gnawan rhythm I was telling you about.” Oh, yeah, the Gnawan rhythm. Where the accents are all in the wrong place and it’s impossible for a novice to find the “one.”
Rivard has been making complex, grooving “unrehearsed” music more or less every other Thursday at the Lizard since the summer of 1998 with a large rotating cast of characters. The core has included Leake, keyboardist John Medeski, pianist Alain Mallet, oud and dumbek player Brahim Fribgane, violinist Mat Maneri, guitarist Gerry Leonard, DJ Logic, and drummer Erik Kerr. That night last month had saxophonist Tom Hall and drummer Dean Johnston. Next Thursday, October 12, Rivard is expecting Kerr, Medeski, guitarists Duke Levine and Dave Tronzo, and turntablist Mister Rourke. The occasion will be the celebration of Now I Understand (Accurate), their first-ever studio album. The double CD As Above was recorded at the Lizard and released in 2000, and three double CDs of various concert recordings were released by live-disc specialists Kufala in 2004. But Now I Understand was a chance for Rivard and Club d’Elf to rehearse, to try and reject ideas, to record multiple parts for a single tune and pick the best, and for Rivard to shape the material compositionally in a way that he doesn’t have an opportunity to do on alternate Thursdays with that rotating cast of all-stars.
And all-stars they are. Club d’Elf have to be one of the most fluent polyglot musical aggregations on the planet: straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz, Indian, African, Moroccan, blues, funk (always funk), pop. Rivard says that one of the challenges of creating Now I Understand was to paint as varied a canvas as possible while sustaining the unity of a “concept” album. So even though the original tracks were laid down not long after that first gig in 1998, he found himself continually adding and subtracting. There are now two other completed volumes in the can â€” one that delves into dub versions of old blues, another that’s predominantly Moroccan and “world” music in its feel.
Now I Understand, he says, is the “darker,” side, indulging the band’s taste for cyberpunk, sci-fi, and comic pranksterism, with a subtext of political protest. It starts with a scratchy old sci-fi narrator: “The world is under attack at this very moment by the most powerful forces man has ever seen!” Sustained organ tones and spooky mellotron enter, and then Erik Kerr’s fierce drum ‘n’ bass-style patter. When the melody returns, it’s in an oscillating theremin voice (Medeski’s keyboards again). Throughout, Rivard smoothly varies texture, meter, and tempo. One of his most effective devices is to alternate Kerr’s double-time snare with passages of Jay Hilt’s half-time John Bonham stomp. There’s Maneri’s uncanny channeling of early-’70s Miles Davis in a wah-wah voice that conjures both Miles’s electric trumpet and guitarist John McLaughlin. The one vocal feature, “A Toy for a Boy,” an old William Sanford tune sung here by Jenifer Jackson, could with its allusions to Chinese scales and Duke Levine’s smooth blues guitar be a lost Steely Dan track. There’s Beat fellow traveler Michael Brownstein reciting his paranoid poem “Monologue From the Top,” and, to wipe away all tragedy, a charming dub-reggae closer built on a sample of one of Kerr’s kids saying, “I was just kiddin’!”
One of the paradoxes of Club d’Elf has always been Rivard’s adaptation of the studio techniques of electronica and hip-hop to live musicians playing in “real” time. So the d’Elf crew are impersonating sample effects that were in turn drawn from live musicians to begin with. Rivard: “It is kind of an ode to that old-school way of doing things while still trying to incorporate all the influences we have with DJ culture and electronic music. Because that’s all now part of the musical vocabulary, like learning Coltrane solos. For my bass playing, looping and electronic music have been as influential as Dave Holland or Mingus.”
He describes himself trying “to sound like a loop, where I imagine a dub producer like Bill Laswell or Lee “Scratch” Perry, and I’m moving my fader like they might be at the helm, dropping out for a couple of bars, so you still have the line going through your head, and then I come in for maybe a note. It’s sort of about thinking like a ‘meta producer’ “. Rivard isn’t bitter about a changing musical landscape that has put a lot of live musicians out of business but also allows him to trade files with a player in Lithuania or Morocco. “However I do miss that feeling of sitting in the same room together”. And rehearsing.