The bio of bassist/composer Mike Rivard, the head elf of the band Club d’Elf, claims that he is “perhaps the only musician to have performed with big band legend Cab Calloway, Frank Zappa discovery Wildman Fisher, Gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun and two members of the Velvet Underground (though sadly, not all at the same time)” [my emphasis]. With Club d’Elf, though, Rivard performs with musicians from a similarly wide range of backgrounds—from traditional Moroccan music to ’60s rock, jazz to country to Hindustani music—all at the same time, playing originals, Gnawa and Sufi classics, and covers of folks such as Zappa and Zawinul/Davis. The result is transformational music that can lighten your load.
You Never Know (Face Pelt Records)
“Boney Oscar Stomp,” the first track of Club d’Elf’s latest album, You Never Know, sets the stage for what is to come. Opening with Paul Schultheis’s floating ’60s-soul Rhodes, the track quickly introduces the amphibian sound of Mike Rivard’s sintir laying down a trance-inducing line that could form the bottom of a Gnawa song, with Dean Johnston’s drums and Brahim Fribgane’s percussion, and whiffs of electric rock guitar from Duke Levine. It’s not long before a Blood, Sweat & Tears horn line on trumpet and tenor sax (Phil Grenadier and Andrew Fogliano, respectively) adorns the proceedings. By then, the easygoing groove has completely taken hold, and you have given yourself over to the flow. So you just float along with Levine’s fine guitar solo and another from Kevin Barry’s lap steel. When the song comes to an end, 8:07 after it began, you have been transported to entirely different neurological coordinates, and you are digging it and thinking, Is it over already?
The album’s 10 tracks feature five originals from Mike Rivard (one with help from H. Hakmoun and Jerry Leake). There’s “Zeed al Maal,” a traditional Gnawa song taught to Rivard by legendary Moroccan musician Maalem Mahmoud Gania, featuring Fribgane on a raw and soulful vocal as well as oud, and “Dervish Dance,” a traditional Sufi tune arranged by Rivard (check out its stunning video here). The band covers “Allah Ya Moulana,” from the famed Moroccan band Nass el-Ghiwane. Two additional covers include the Zawinul/Davis track “In a Silent Way/It’s about That time” and Frank Zappa’s “King Kong.”
The instruments range from traditional acoustic (oud, sintir, guembri, tabla, and various other hand drums) to contemporary electric and electronic devices (turntables and processors, vintage and analog keyboards, electric mandocello, and the aforementioned guitars), as well as harmonica and horns. In addition to the personnel already mentioned, you will find John Medeski (keyboards), David Fiuczynski (fretted and fretless guitars), Mister Rourke (turntables), Amit Kavthekar (tabla and vocal), and Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson (harmonica). The aforementioned Fribgane triples on oud, vocals, and percussion.
On every track, the emphasis is on groove and repetition—trance music—which provide “a portal,” in Rivard’s words, “into the eternal, the timeless realm.” It’s a realm that helped Rivard recover himself after a near-death experience while traveling deep in the Amazon, and one he’s cultivated in study with Gnawa music masters, whose music fuels dance and ritual possession.
The album offers a range of musical experiences within that realm. Rivard’s dreamy “Golden Hour” blends rock and jazz elements, while his relaxed “Now Open Your Eyes” made me wonder what the Booker T and the MGs might have sounded like if they’d been born in Morocco. Rivard’s “Dark Fish,” with its Zappa-like line, delivers electric head jazz that hovers somewhere out near Jupiter. “Allah Ya Moulana” offers a country guitar and an oud solo, all held together with the groove, and Fribgane’s vocal is as sweet as his vocal on “Zeed Al Maal” is raw. The extended exploration of Zappa’s “King Kong” features a boiling rhythm section and succinct solos from one and all, with a level-jumping contribution from Medeski. There’s the viscous groove of the serpentine “Dervish Dance” with its oud and fretless guitar. “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal” could be titled “James Brown Goes Gnawa,” and Kavthekar’s vocal percussion, singing out the Jhaptal tala, is delightful.
The trance realm works its magic on the musicians themselves. Because the groove keeps everything grounded, they can go out to the edge without fear of falling off the map. They have clearly been given a great deal of freedom in their soloing, and they respond with riveting performances without wasted notes or self-indulgence.
You Never Know confirms what we already knew about Club d’Elf: this is a band that sounds like no one else, that marries spirit with flesh, the traditional with the contemporary, the acoustic with the electric, West with East. What maybe we and the band did not know until now is just how damn good a band it is. (Available April 1 on Bandcamp)
© 2022 Mel Minter