Northeast Performer – March, 2007
October 2006 saw the release of an incredibly ambitious music project, which, for aficionados of the improv/jam scenes, was long overdue. Now I Understand, the first studio album by local virtuosos Club d’Elf, marked the end of a mega-project involving over 25 musicians and nine recording studios. Mike Rivard and his lengthy list of collaborators spent eight years recording and mixing the material that ended up on the record. This year marks the ninth anniversary of the group, whose ever-changing lineup plays regular Thursday night gigs at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. Inviting artists to Club d’Elf gigs is a task for which Rivard eagerly assumes responsibility, being both the creator and only permanent fixture in the group. Rivard has a long-standing musical relationship with most of the adjunct members and is familiar with their improvisational abilities, allowing for widely varied interpretations of the songs based on the combination of players on any given night.
So how does one play music for over two hours without having rehearsed and with a lineup that is in a constant state of flux? Rivard describes the performance as “an equal forum in which all players are having a conversation.” It involves, more than anything else, listening to what is happening within the room, and then responding. This performance aesthetic has theoretical roots in Dixieland, where everyone is soloing, but also no one is soloing. The sum of the players interjecting and dropping out creates a sort of “group solo,” where no one artist takes the spotlight. Thus, the musicians move forward, telling a story as a group and passing the narrative around. One could perhaps anticipate how the aural textures provided by the different instruments would mix together, but never the direction of the music itself.
Now I Understand was not conceived under the assumption of ultimately releasing a CD, but more as a means of documenting the performances of Rivard’s compositions. During the years of tracking, the group put to tape (and eventually to disk) an immense body of material, working out of several studios with a host of different engineers. After laying down all the tracks, Rivard then took on the role as classical composer, applying orchestral arrangement techniques to the countless tracks on each song. Consequently, the project yielded meta-versions of songs they’d reinterpreted (and continue to reinterpret) countless times live.
The album itself is a sprawling journey through a dense sonic landscape. The broad palette of musical textures that phase in and out of the listener’s awareness are expertly mixed into a cohesive unit and take form as symphonic movements. For a band whose main avenue is live performance, the fundamental differences of working in a studio required a slightly different approach. Rhythm sections for songs were tracked live, retaining the communal interaction so essential to the band’s sound. The mixing environment allowed for an attention to detail not attainable during live shows, creating a more pleasing listening experience on record. The live show centers on the group’s energy and spontaneity, and the recordings try to capture that as authentically as possible.
The majority of the Club d’Elf repertoire is rooted in the complex rhythm section of Rivard and drummer Erik Kerr. Kerr delivers laid back funk grooves and driving kick/snare patterns of trance/drum n’ bass, adding his unique embellishments along the way. Rivard’s bass tones range from smooth, upright sounds to grinding sub bass pulses, warped through envelope filters and fueled by a ’60s-era jazz bass. He also features a Moroccan sintir on a few songs. The sintir is a three-stringed fretless instrument with a warm, droning tone. Brahim Fribgane, the group’s third core member, alternates between percussion instruments and the oud, a fretless instrument that evokes both classical guitar and sitar. Moving adeptly through the shadows of d’Elf grooves and jumping in and out of the spotlight is the turntable work of Mister Rourke, who beat matches with the drums, sweeps through time and space effects, and plays samples offering instructions on how to improve radio reception or prophesizing the end of civilization as we know it. Each piece has a few clearly defined sections, providing just enough of a framework for the musical conversation to occur.
With a masterfully created album now available and over two more hours of completed material still in his hands, Rivard intends to keep his momentum going. Now I Understand is both the first and also the darkest of the d’Elf material, in part due to the political climate over the past few years. Subsequent releases will emphasize the Moroccan influence on the Club d’Elf sound and eventually return to a lighter side of trance – the reward for getting through the darker periods.
Written by Dan Cardinal