Club d'Elf: Mystery, Science, Theater

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"Of the three we just released this album is our favorite," the band writes on its website. The four tracks on disc one each expands more than ten minutes, and the musicians—with reedman Joe dropping out and violinist Mat Maneri and guitarist Randy Roos stepping in—seem to luxuriate more in their improvisations. Vassar Chapel is probably the most "jam band fan friendly" of these three sets.

"Big Light in the Sky" begins the trip with a serious dose of Pink Floyd. Except, imagine Floyd with rock, jazz, and jazz-rock drummer Bill Bruford replacing Nick Mason: Drummer Kerr is consistently challenging and thought-provoking, playing the beats in between the beats, brush-stroking with his entire kit like a master painter.

"Big Light" opens up "The Tingler," a blue electric howl that culminates in old-school organ boogaloo refracted through the psychedelic jam-band prism. Club d'Elf offers Medeski even more improvisational freedom than his Medeski Martin & Wood gig, and his roughshod ride over this Little Feat-sounding groove seems to soar through its wide-open spaces.

"Stigmata" rips disc two open like a flesh wound. Roos' electric guitar shrieks as the rhythm section churns out hard funk—Hendrix' Band of Gypsies on a harsh caffeine jag—and Medeski swirls an electric sandstorm like Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett in one of Miles' Bitches Brew period electric bands.

Two Fribgane titles, wrapping ancient oud, violin and vocal melodies in circular rhythms, give Vassar Chapel its unique sonic flavor. "Sidi Rabi" serpentines between acoustic passages and electric ensemble crunches; King Crimson devotees would not blink at the lie that this is a newly discovered outtake from KC's progressive acoustic-electric masterpiece Larks' Tongues in Aspic. Fribgane's arrangement of the traditional "Challaban" swings from the pendulum of Rivard's repeating four-note bass figure to whirl in an ever-accelerating dervish circle.

Athens, GA 03/28/2002

Eric Kalb sits in on drums for Eric Kerr, Reeves Gabrels on guitar for Roos, and turntable master Mister Rourke comes onboard for this Athens gig. These additions—particularly Gabrels and Rourke—make this Club d'Elf lineup powerful, quirky, and funky.

Rourke scratches turntables and samples to intensify the funky shuffle "Gator Geek," melting the groove down into the loping "Uncle Skulky," who erupts with volcanic Medeski keyboards. "Uncle" skulks into the extended jazz-rock space jam "Bass Beatbox," where Rourke's turntables make fine funk rhythm guitar and Rivard's bass, oddly enough, is rarely featured. Disc one's closing suite ("Scorpionic," "Athens Sha'abi" and "Sidi Rabi") roars electric and powerful, Gabrels ripping through tones, shredding blues and Middle Eastern scales in swarming electric serpentines.

Athens disc two became my favorite from the six. It leaps in full stride to tear through "Fire in the Brain," an electric guitar freakout that morphs into a beatdown / duel between the drums and turntables. Rourke's colorful swaths sound both itchy AND scratchy! "The Tingler" demonstrates how Club d'Elf fleshes out a tune from Rivard's bass skeleton and like Doctor Frankenstein nurtures it to electric neon life. You can also hear how drums and turntables, properly manipulated in tandem, can build rhythmic intensity—Kalb and Rourke rock this beat. Then comes "Percepto," a shimmering metallic hard rock quartet jam.

Rivard saves his best for last, closing with a head-twisting bonus version of "Shadow's Shift" in which his fingers dance upon the bass the way James Brown glides (well, used to glide) across the Apollo floor. Here his bass surveys the roaring funk of Larry Graham, the innovative fire of Tony Levin, the precision of Ron Carter, and the sheer audacity of Jaco Pastorius. You won't hear more bad-ass bass playing anywhere else...and I am glad, grateful even, to be among some of the first to hear it!

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