Signal to Noise Magazine
Leading his ensemble Club d’Elf, bassist Mike Rivard alchemizes a unique strain of improvisational trance-dub, spiced with jazz, electronica, funk, and rock with a loose collective of friends from around the Boston area and beyond. At any given performance, the band might include such comfortable co-conspirators as keyboardist John Medeski, Peter Gabriel collaborator Brahim Fribgane on oud and doumbek, the late, lamented leader of Morphine, Mark Sandman, or the father-son free jazz team of Joe and Mat Maneri often in surprising combinations. “Like the show that Joe did,” offers Rivard. “We also had [guitarist] Reeves Gabrels, who plays with David Bowie. Where else are you ever going to hear those guys play together?
As Above (Live at the Lizard Lounge), Club d’Elf’s recent debut release (a two-CD live anthology in deluxe packaging), captures a representative sampling of their detailed, neon-lit sound environment where turntables and triggered samples flit around the natural acoustics of clarinet, violin, oud, and accordion; where timeless Indian and Moroccan polyrhythms nest inside slinky, hip-hop groove; where the next turn might find the band sewn deeply in the pocket, or just as easily, teasing out some bizarre atonal curiosity.
“Creating the sort of moment that happens when you hear a really good joke,” Rivard suggests. “Like when your expectations are going one way, and suddenly something else comes in totally out of the blue, but it fits, it works. I guess that’s what I try to do with this music.”
Mixing and matching musicians and genres in a seamless yet surprise-filled musical continuum seems to come naturally to the Berklee graduate, whose background includes stints in a variety of Boston-based ensembles: Russ Gershon’s new-jazz big band the Either/Orchestra, indy-rockers The Walkers (who recorded an album for Atlantic that was never release), the Indo-African culture-blend of Natraj, and the folk/pop of The Story.
Offered a biweekly slot at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge in 1998, Rivard began to organize an inclusive, free-floating ensemble from these groups and others. Rivard had met Medeski, saxophonist Gershon, and trumpeter Tom Halter with the E/O, he’d worked with tabla player Jerry Leake and violinist Mat Maneri in Natraj, and guitarist Duke Levine and keyboardist Alain Mallet came into the fold via their association with the Story. Drummer Erik Kerr, another core member of the Club, had worked with Rivard in a band called the House of Brown: “It was a kind of quarter-tone piano thing with loops and samples,” describes the bassist. “Eric was doing this Sonny Murray-meets-Clyde Stubblefield kind of drumming, really deep and dark. He’s really someone who’s not afraid to lay down the funk, but who can also open it up.”
The way the group spins simple, rhythmically-oriented themes into expansive improvisations recalls Miles Davis’ Dark Magus era, as does the presence of funky ostinatos, Indian percussion, and distorted guitar shredding. “It’s certainly a strong reference point,” admits Rivard. “A lot of reviewers cite that, like an On the Corner sort of vibe where other aspects of the music become more dominant than the melody or a chord sequence. Maybe it’s the percussion that’s stating the melody.”
d’Elf’s collection of themes serves as “a way to have everyone’s feet in the same place, like here’s where we’re starting from, and here’s where we trying to get to, and how you fill in the blanks is up to whoever we’ve gathered on that particular night. Obviously, I’m not going to put a chart in front of Joe Maneri.” Compare the two versions of “Last Business” with its loping bass groove from the new CD and it’s easy to hear how no two performances of the same tune sound very much alike.
The music’s often dark mood, with snarling synthesized bass and roiling polyrhythmic undercurrents, is embodied in the group’s namesake and imaginary mascot of sorts, an unsavory creature memorably hypothesized by Terence McKenna (who’s eerily sampled on As Above’s “Trance Meeting”). “He talks about these interdimensional machine elves, these mischievous little deities that one can come into contact with in certain states of mind, and having those sorts of experiences has been influential for me as a musician. But these aren’t cute little elves, you know, if you say “Club d’Elf” really fast, it sounds like ‘clubbed elf,’ an elf that’s been clubbed. Like, ‘what’s for dinner tonight, honey?’ ‘Clubbed elf.'”
If the comparison to Miles, the Prince of Darkness, brings to mind some hackneyed 70s jazz/funk throwback, think again. The presence of DJs Logic and C plus Jere Faison on sampler add another layer of sound, often ambiguous in origin, but thoroughly modern. And drummer Kerr frequently deploys incredible live jungle and drum-n-bass beats, organically suggesting echo and decay. Rivard explains how he began to develop an interest in contemporary electronic music about five years ago: “I did a tour with Paula Cole, and, as sort of an antidote to the music I was playing with her, I started seeking out all these different records, stuff that Bill Laswell was doing, DJ Shadow, Squarepusher.”
The effervescent, springy electro-ephemera that courses through the band’s music suggests a shared interest with the Chicago-based Tortoise/Isotope 217 post-rock axis, and also fit cleanly with the developing trance-fusion camp dominated by such bands as Philadelphia’s Disco Biscuits, Baltimore’s Lake Trout, and Georgia’s Sound Tribe Sector 9. The new record is already a hit with college-aged jamband fans, who flocked to check out John Medeski’s guest appearances and stuck around after Club d’Elf struck an appealing chord.
“We’re getting out there and doing some of these hippie, jamband things,” acknowledges Rivard, who’s understandably excited about the opportunity to bring the groups music to the attention of such an expansive, active, and enthusiastic audience. “Like this 420 festival that we just did with [veteran drummer] Kenwood [Dennard]. He couldn’t believe it. I mean this guy was in Brand X back in the day, playing with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Martino and all those guys, and to see all these young kids, dancing to fusion and jazz rockâ€¦ You’re used to having an audience coming out for this kind of music, you know, your sort of intellectual white guy, and now there are these girls in granny dresses dancing to it. Everybody’s really open-minded and enthusiastic.”
“I grew up listening to ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie,” says Rivard, by way of explaining his disdain of musical snobbery, “but I was also listening to Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Then I went through a phase where all I wanted to listen to was Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steve Lacy, the Revolutionary Ensemble. What attracted me to both kinds of music was their energy level. I liked music where it sounded like the band meant it.”
Unioning with the muse is ultimately Rivard’s goal, and the diverse and dedicated personalities in Club d’Elf have occasionally succeeded in tapping into the supernatural sound-stream. “It was at the end of a show we did with Joe,” says Rivard of “Divine Invasion,” the new record’s final track. “I had ended the song, and Joe kind of kept on playing this clarinet soliloquy, and then Mat started playing and everyone else sort of came in, and it was like this spirit just moved through the band. And like that, it was gone. For me that’s the epitome of what we try to do, to get those kinds of energies flowing to the point where everyone’s in tune and together. All the egos have been checked at the door and everyone’s there to let the music come through us, and be a channel for it. I don’t think we’ve ever achieved that better than at that particular point.”