Stuff @ Night
Groove Chemistry: Feelin’ the Love from Club d’Elf
Question: What do The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and Club d’Elf have in common? Answer: more than you might think, according to Club d’Elf bassist and bandleader Mike Rivard, who credits a man named George Meyer-along with James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the music of North Africa-as a major inspiration for his art.
Meyer, a critically acclaimed writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, is “the most subversive man in America,” says Rivard. “I admire him tremendously. He once described comedy as ‘reframing reality.’ He said that great comedy is that sense of being led to a certain series of expectations, and then something that you hadn’t even thought of is revealed. It has to do with leading the brain to a certain place and then turning the tables-‘pulling the rug.'”
“I think, more than anything else, that’s what I try to do with Club d’Elf-reframe reality in the sense that all great comedy does for me,” Rivard continues. “That’s what we do musically. We might start out with a certain groove where people think ‘Oh, this is going to go down that particular avenue,’ and then suddenly it becomes this electronica thing or a drum-n-bass thing, or this rhythm rises up out of the music that you had no idea was in there.”
Over a cup of tea inside the decidedly earthy confines of the Coffee Cantata in Jamaica Plain, Rivard is attempting to pinpoint the elements that make up the otherworldly dynamic of his constantly morphing band of improvisational thrill-seekers. As attested by the liner notes to his group’s new double-CD set of live material, As Above (Live Archive), Club d’Elf began as an open-ended experiment three years ago. At the time, Rivard-a veteran session and touring musician who had played with such local luminaries as the Either/Orchestra, the Story, and Paula Cole-hit upon the idea of assembling a congregation of friends every other week at the Lizard Lounge for a series of improvisational performances that would incorporate everything from avant-funk to dub-dosed trance to art rock to DJ-driven acid jazz to well, you name it.
As Above, culled from six nights at the Lizard Lounge and featuring performance by such heavy-hitting guests as guitarist Reeves Gabrels (David Bowie, Rolling Stones), drummer Kenwood Dennard (Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Sting), and oud master and percussionist Brahim Fribgane (Peter Gabriel, Morphine), among many others, well documents Club d’Elf’s dazzling musical palette. Even as an edited snapshot of the bands best moments (“where everything was really connecting,” says Rivard), each disc runs at more than 73 minutes, offering breathtaking peaks and sublime valleys that make up the group’s musical universe. (The second of the ensemble’s pair of CD-release parties, on February 22 at the Lizard Lounge, is scheduled to feature guest appearances by John Medeski, DJ Logic, and Reeves Gabrels.) Although none of the Club d’Elf participants had played together before their nights at the Lizard Lounge, Rivard says, “I had a fairly good idea of who they are as musicians and what they like to do and what sort of musical environments they thrive in.”
“I’d rehearse the rhythmic concepts pretty thoroughly with the drummers and percussionist,” he adds, “to keep it all together from the bottom up. When you have the rhythmic structure below, it’s amazing the diversity that can happen up top. You can steer it in different directions, and I looked at it as if each person is a fader on a console-thinking about it in terms of the dub aspect and what happens to the groove when you take one element away. Suddenly, you just bring it down to the snare or the organ and it just changes the whole focus of the piece. You get this very different perception.”
So what does it take to get everybody on the same page when part of the point is free-associative exploration? “A lot of it is through the chemistry of the grooves,” says Rivard. “A lot if it is hard to describe in concrete analytical terms because it’s all due to such ethereal elements as how one is feeling one night: maybe this guy’s gear is not acting well, and maybe this guy just had a fight with his girlfriend, and maybe this guy has to play a certain way to get through his demons-but you get a pretty good idea of how people work together.”
As for his own preferred frame of mind during a performance, Rivard pauses for a moment. “It’s not particularly hip to describe it,” he says, “but I guess it comes down to love-loving the people you’re playing with, loving who you’re playing for, and just hoping that in some way you’re creating something of beauty. But it’s also that I love to laugh. I love something in the music that makes me smile.” And as if remembering that line by George Meyer, he does.