On occasion, the Columbus Theater in Rhode Island puts on its best face. A Sunday in February was one such example. Instead of movies featuring surgically enhanced breasts and actors named Candie and Dirk, a bass player named Mike Rivard was steering his improvisational trance-dub band, Club d’Elf, into the third night of a six-show tour. DevoteÃ©s of improvised and experimental music filed into the theater and took care to choose a clean seat. Club d’Elf, more music collective than a “band,” has over the last two and a half years taken up residence at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA, as a continuing group exploration of trance, dub, jazz, and West African music. While the group features a core lineup of Rivard on bass, Jerry Leake on tablas and percussion, Jere Faison on sampler, and Erik Kerr on drums, an eye-opening revolving cast if guest musicians, including Reeves Gabrels, DJ Logic, John Medeski, and Kenwood Dennard has complemented the group on its quest.
“We’re looking to provide an environment that’s musically challenging and satisfying for ourselves as well as creating music that is more than just providing fodder for dancing or listening. There’s a spiritual constituent to what we’re doing with the trance aspect, and we try to tap into that energy.” Inspired by the likes of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Miles Davis, and Bill Laswell, Rivard says that Club d’Elf started simply enough with a friend who was booking for the Lizard Lounge. “I was looking for more playing opportunity for myself and the people that I like to play with. So I suggested a night of improvisational music based on pre-arranged grooves and a dub, trance, and drum-n-bass aspect.
The group’s first-ever tour took place in February, but the jump from home to foreign, and sometimes cavernous, spaces took some extra concentration. “The great thing about the Lizard Lounge is that the environment allows us to play in a semi-circle, so all the musicians can be looking at each other, which is pretty important. It’s a little bit of a challenge to recreate that on various stages. It was nice to play on consecutive nights with the same musicians and see how different pieces evolve. The different spaces and the different crowds made the music come out in different ways.”
Club d’Elf’s epic two-disc live album, As Above (Live at the Lizard Lounge), is one of the more remarkable records released locally in quite some time. The group’s first album serves up highlights of six sessions recorded over a year’s worth of performances at the Lizard Lounge.
Consider it bass and drum (as opposed to electronica’s drum-n-bass) since the one constant thread is Rivard’s slinking bass lines and the core rhythms of drumset, percussion, and miscellaneous atmospherics. Points of reference include Medeski, Martin, and Wood’s groove, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s controlled chaos, and Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady for its group song dynamics, as opposed to simple springboards for endless soloing. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, As Above demands an investment of your time, albeit a highly-recommended one.
To get you started, check out “Actual Smiles,” “As Above,” “In a Perfect World,” and “Last Business (dub)”. Mingus’ bass-player-as-bandleader concept is appropriate. Rivard prods, redirects, and supports his partners in crime throughout the entire album, steering jazz excursions into oud solos, letting funk rhythms battle it out with polyrhythms until the latter wins, the victory cemented with crisp Afropop guitars. While performing, it’s fair to say the Rivard is an on-stage producer, usually giving subtle nods to individual band members, one-by-one fine-tuning the piece.
The tone of the disc is set by the opener, “Now I Understand,” in which the listener is lulled in by jungle ambience, only to be blindsided by a simple but absolutely perfect bass figure with drums, percussion, and turntable, the song finally burning itself out with a wailing sax over keyboard flourishes. Rivard and company are not a studio rhythm section that exists simply to show off their chops; rather the guests seamlessly work their way into the mix for the purpose of creating a greater whole. “It’s a music that’s created by a community who are all listening and caring about what each other is playing,” Rivard says. “Developing a group voice is paramount.”
It’s a modern Dixieland approach, in that everyone is soloing but not soloing. Everyone is part of the texture and creating space for everyone else. “The concepts of African music are very important to me in that there is a cumulative rhythm where each person is playing a part, and, when you listen to it as a whole, you hear this incredible churning rhythm. Each person is not playing the entire thing-they’re leaving spaces. One person will play this part that interlocks with everything else.”
Forget traditional song structure here. Each piece starts, develops, twists, gets lost, found, and then turns to end up somewhere else entirely. Says Rivard, “It’s hard to say how much is improv and how much is composition because it changes from night to night. I work on most of the compositions with different members of the group-and work out the rhythmic concepts pretty thoroughly, and that allows a lot to open up on the top. Sometimes there are melodies with the tunes-but the idea is to make it different every night. The songs are a pathway to get us all into the same collective space so the improvisations can go from there.”
The Providence show was lightly attended, which was a shame because the evening included Rivard, Mat Maneri, John Medeski, Brahim Fribgane, Erik Kerr, DJ Flack and DJ C. Highlights included Fribgane’s mesmerizing oud playing, Maneri’s violin excursions, Medeski’s rhythmic keyboard blasts, and Rivard’s consistently creative bass work. Maneri at times stared into the hall, hand shading his eyes from the overhead lights as if he were surveying a vast, empty landscape. However, this was the one performance that wasn’t a near sell-out. As the disc gets circulated and the word spreads, the numbers of the converted will certainly grow. A note for Boston fans who wait in line for hours at the Lizard Lounge: Providence is only 40 minutes away.
“I’ve got a studio record that I’ve been working on for the last two and a half years,” says Rivard, “All the people that have been involved with Club d’Elf over the years-Mark Sandman, John Medeski, DJ Logic-all these people played on it. And I’m just going to keep touring, keep breaking away, and getting to new audiences.”
The uninitiated may make the mistake of prematurely dismissing Club d’Elf as another unlistenable exercise in free-jazz wankery, but understand this: the music is based on a highly-melodic trance-groove. Perhaps the greatest lesson of Club d’Elf is that, as Rivard time and time again proves, musical salvation resides in a bass line.