Club d'Elf: Mystery, Science, Theater

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Club d'Elf is a Boston-based band led by bassist Mike Rivard. They've just released three two-CD live sets---recorded at the Knitting Factory in New York City in 2000, at Vassar College Chapel in 2001 and in Athens, GA, in 2002—on Kufala Records.

These are just about the only simple statements you can make about Club d'Elf.

What kind of band is Club d'Elf? What sort of music do they play? Ummmm'

Club d'Elf is a free-form floating ensemble centered around composer, conductor and bassman Rivard, an experienced Boston hand from work with Paula Cole, Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and The Story.

Club d'Elf almost (but not) always includes Rivard, Erik Kerr on drums and Brahim Fribgane on percussion and oud, a Middle-Eastern lute common to ancient North African, Greek, and Egyptian cultures. John Medeski, who worked with Rivard in the Either/Orchestra, has been a regular in this Club since it opened. Guitarist Dave Tronzo, a veteran of such demanding avant-rock and -jazz gigs as John Cale and the Lounge Lizards, is usually around. Mister Rourke's turntables on loan from Soulive are too. Other guests such as Reeves Gabrels, guitarist for David Bowie and Tin Machine, are sometimes there. Sometimes they are not.

Club d'Elf plays improvised mainly instrumental music. It's difficult to be more specific because no matter what you say, its opposite is often also true. There's no country-western or bluegrass on any of these six live discs. No opera or catholic classical music either. But everything else sounds fair game to Rivard and company—EVERYTHING, and not just from the current or previous century, either. No song or personnel introductions or other explanations: You sort of just have to jump on and ride Club d'Elf's music until it either throws you off or its bucking comes to rest.

And like every other great bassist, Rivard serves as the rhythmic, melodic, and conceptual center of what sounds like an animated cartoon musical universe. "Cartoon" is complimentary. Dig this: "We try to create the sort of moment that occurs when you hear a really good joke or see a great Simpsons episode," says Rivard. "We attempt to reframe reality in the same sense that all great comedy does, where your expectations set you up for one thing, and then something entirely unexpected comes along."

Some experiments do seem to work better than others, and you can go crazy trying to figure this stuff out. "I write charts out and get together with individual musicians to discuss strategies, but only the rhythmic foundation between me and the drummer really gets worked out beforehand," says Rivard. "Before the performance takes place, nobody quite knows what all the different elements will be, so it all gets mixed live."

It all hangs together so tightly and swings so fiercely that you will have to remind yourself, often, that these six CDs consist of mainly improvised music.

New York, NY 04/20/2000

This NYC gig is the most unhinged of these three sets, experimental and free, perhaps in reflection of its recording circumstances at the famous avant-jazz and -rock laboratory The Knitting Factory. Even though this is an edited set and not the complete performance, each disc runs about 80 minutes.

Rivard's bass line often provides the only sure footing through the improvisations, as in the opening "Route of the Root" and "Joe's Blues," where Joe Maneri's saxophone wails through obscure, odd-shaped backdrops. Maneri later congregates a free sax trio with Rivard and Kerr in "Forget That." For the listener, the first few navigations through "Fire in the Brain" or "Bass Beatbox," respectively stoked by electric keyboards and percussion, can prove as colorful, frantic and dangerous as Manhattan rush hour traffic. Disc one also reprises the title track from Club d'Elf's previous release, As Above , swimming through murky percussion / bass reggae interludes until the keyboards and other instruments divebomb in.

Disc two presents several long experimental suites linked by shorter transitional pieces. Maneri's reeds in "Jungle Adagio" and "Left Hand of Clyde" sound almost needlessly harsh in harmony and rhythm, sort of like dropping some difficult Ornette Coleman passages to break up a Medeski Martin & Wood groove. Maneri recovers (sort of) to sound like a wobbly drunk navigating the mysterious environs of "Invisible Landscape" and "d'Empty Land Part 2" many hours after last call. You'll also find the atypical "Chapel Perilous," where keyboards, bass, and drum spread slippery old-school James Brown jam while guest tenor saxophonist Eric Hipp testifies the gospel of hard-rockin' funk.

Vassar Chapel 02/26/2001

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