By Paul Robicheau
This is the quintessential Club d’elf album, smartly arranged and surprisingly accessible without losing any of the group’s improvisational edges or exotic breadth.
It’s been 24 years since bassist Mike Rivard founded Club d’elf as an eclectic musical collective, assembling a revolving cast of prime players for heady dub-jazz explorations at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge. But Rivard’s most challenging journey brought him from depths of depression after a pulmonary embolism to refocus on channeling the traditional Moroccan trance music Gnawa on his lute-like sintir and ultimately reconvene Club d’elf for a new studio album.
Capturing the spontaneous magic of Club d’elf in a studio is hard enough without navigating a personal return from the heart of darkness. Yet lo and behold, You Never Know — largely recorded live to analog — delivers the quintessential Club d’elf album, smartly arranged by producer Rivard and surprisingly accessible without losing any of the group’s improvisational edges or exotic breadth.
Much of this can be attributed to Rivard’s proclivity for spreading the focus to the talents of Club d’elf regulars and associates in tracks that perfectly mix spirited originals, Gnawa and Sufi folk songs, and homages to his fusion heroes Miles Davis and Frank Zappa.
Apart from the bedrock rhythm team of Rivard and drummer Dean Johnston, plus Brahim Fribgane on oud, vocals, and hand drums, separate ensembles essentially split the album. The first four tracks highlight the guitar tandem of Duke Levine and lap-steel foil Kevin Barry, while Paul Schultheis mans a full range of electric keyboards. For the final six tracks, John Medeski takes over the keys and David Fiuczynski lets loose on fretted and unfretted guitars. And turntable manipulator Mister Rourke adds sonic sprinkles to a half dozen tracks throughout the album.
Horns drift over “Boney Oscar Stomp,” which opens the record on an inviting note with its loping groove, as Levine stretches out with a standout solo of jazzy blues phrases answered by Barry’s woozy steel. Casablanca native Fribgane commands traditional changeup “Zeed Al Maal” with gruff, ecstatic vocals over a seductive Gnawa groove before the first unit settles into a transcendent pair of Rivard tunes. “Now Open Your Eyes” oozes gorgeous tonal blends from Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson’s harmonica over Wurlitzer electric piano by Schultheis, who adds fluttery Moog lines. And after DJ Rourke toggles voices into a spectral prayer chant, “Golden Hour” floats on rise-and-fall layers of organ and lap steel before Levine nestles into his own resonant guitar flight.
Medeski and Fiuczynski climb aboard for a seamless segue into the bowed bass drone and atmospheric twinkles of “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” the Joe Zawinul/Miles Davis classic where Medeski’s organ swirls like a bitch’s brew and Fiuczynski builds to mercurial guitar slurs and shards that evoke Mahavishnu fire. Rivard’s “Dark Fish” likewise runs the voodoo down with volcanic funk-jazz that nods to Davis’s mid-’70s period even before Phil Grenadier enters with scorching trumpet ripples. Pushed by Rivard’s electric bass and Johnston’s backbeat (which merges with the undertow of Amit Kavthekar’s tabla), Medeski goes wild, switching from one keyboard to another on a thrashing tonal bender.
The traditional Sufi tune “Dervish Dance” conjures mysterious desert cinema, highlighting Fribgane from his tamboura drone to brisk oud breaks that meld with Fiuczynski’s slippery notes. Based on a piece by Moroccan master Hassan Hakmoun, “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal” accents its rhythm in syllabic vocals common to Hindustani classical music, while the light groove of Nass El Ghiwane’s “Allah Ya Moulana” finds Fiuczynski mirroring the slide guitar of King Sunny Ade’s Nigerian ju-ju. Medeski returns with an organ frenzy during an extended take on Zappa’s “King Kong,” which rides another chaabi shuffle, again integrating the Moroccan influence that has come to define Club d’elf — even if it’s just one ingredient in a potent stew. Or, as one of DJ Rourke’s audio samples aptly puts it, an “elixir.”
The Club d’elf lineup of John Medeski, David Fiuczynski, Brahim Fribgane, Mister Rourke, Mike Rivard and Dean Johnston have embarked on a Northeast tour that includes shows at the Columbus Theater in Providence, RI (April 9), the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH (April 10, with opener Vapors of Morphine)(NOTE: April 9 and 10 shows are now postponed), Portland’s Bayside Bowl (April 13), Northampton’s Bombyx (April 14), and Pembroke’s Soundcheck Studios (April 15). clubdelf.com
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe (where he reviewed Club d’elf’s first show in 1998), Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.