Something Else Reviews | ‘You Never Know’ review
JULY 18, 2022
‘You Never Know’ (2022)
Club d’Elf is a Boston-based world fusion aggregation that’s the brainchild of its only permanent member, bassist Mike Rivard. A musician who drinks in cultures from around the globe, Rivard’s recent brush with death from pulmonary embolism motivated him to find solace in the calming, trance-like groove of gnawa, Islamic religious songs and rhythms originating from Moroccan and West African culture. From that immersion into this music sprung forth a new Club d’Elf album, You Never Know.
Rivard’s invention has put out countless live documents but You Never Know is only the third studio creation. Rivard made this record with a base of Brahim Fribgane (oud, vocal and a wide variety of Middle Eastern instruments) and Dean Johnston on drums. Duke Levine (guitar) Paul Schultheis (keyboards) and Kevin Barry (lap steel) are present for the first half of the album, swapped out for John Medeski (keys) and David “Fuze” Fiuczynski on the second half. There are other supporting players providing everything from turntables to horns to harmonica where needed.
A cool assortment of First and Third World instrumentation with all the harmonics to match, of which there is plenty going on with “Zeed Al Maal.” North Africa is well represented not only by Fribgane’s oud and vocal but also Rivard playing a three-string bass lute known as the sintir. Kevin Barry’s lap steel, with its microtonal features, makes it a fine fit in this setting, and add a third fretted instrument when you also add in Duke Levine’s electric guitar. Meanwhile Dean Johnston’s drums, Paul Schultheis on electric piano and Mister Rourke’s turntables provide contemporary Western funk. It all makes a wonderful, globalist groove.
“Boney Oscar Stomp” might be more at home in Memphis, Tennessee than Memphis, Egypt, and the small horn section bring more of that Memphis soul. But the highlight are Levine’s blues-laden licks, and only in the coda does the song settle into a laid-back Mediterranean groove.
Rivard’s acoustic bass lays the foundation for the expansive organ on the dreamlike “Golden Hour” and hyper-kinetic electric jazz number “Dark Fish” with Phil Grenadier’s aggressive trumpet attack could have been a standout track on Miles Davis’ On The Corner (more on the Miles connection in a minute). “Dervish Dance” echoes Sufi folk music, but with modern and psychedelic touches all around that only serve to accentuate, no dilute, the ancient spirituality.
For two of the three non-original songs, early rock-jazz classics from 1969 were chosen. “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” captures the serenity and trance of the original, which makes it a perfect fit for the album’s mission. Medeski conjures up the deep soul of organ and Rhodes, and Fiuczynski playing the John McLaughlin part on electric guitar. But it’s Rivard’s standup bass that eventually emerges from the haze to trace the lyrical lines of the song and Andrew Fogliano’s baritone sax is an unexpectedly judicious touch. Fuze takes over again when the performance shifts to the hypnotic “It’s About That Time,” with percussion and keyboards swirling all about.
The tentative intro with Medeski’s heavily clipped organ, chants and Fiuczynski playing fretless guitar doesn’t give away what song is being played, initially. Finally two minutes in, Frank Zappa’s super-knotty “King Kong” theme emerges, set to palmas and an angular time signature from Johnston. An all-percussion interlude breaks up the jam but the Moroccan signifiers don’t quite leave and when the chord sequence returns, Medeski’s organ is laying down the heat.
“Allah Ya Moulana” is a song made popular by Nass el-Ghiwane, a popular band out of Morocco that like Club d’Elf does throughout this album used gnawa music as a starting point and incorporated Western instruments to forge a new sound. Fribgane again leads the vocals in the native language and Fuze’s fretless again bridges the divide between the cultures separated by the Strait of Gibraltar.
Mike Rivard’s unique road to recovery led him to make music that could both sooth and motivate anyone. With the inspired assortment of musicians backing him, You Never Know sounds like the go-to world fusion album of 2022.
You Never Know is out now, from Face Pelt Records. Get the record from Bandcamp.