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Club d'Elf: Mystery, Science, Theater

Chris M. Slawecki By

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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

"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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