Club d’Elf, Mercury Lounge, NYC- 3/31
NYC ROLL-TOP: The Red Herring
The old dude was clearly out of his gourd. But he was also a red herring. I
stood there watching him for a whole set of music by Club d'Elf thinking
that he was the bandleader. After all, he was obviously older than everybody
else on the platform, and he sat – looking dignified – at center stage with
his saxophone and clarinet. The short, squat man was dressed in nice black
pants and shirt connected by suspenders with a pocket-watch chain emerging
from one of his pockets. He was bald, and a white, bushy beard – no mustache – positively sprouted from the bottom half of his face.
He played the part, too. He sat for the whole show. When the music grew, he
waved his arms wildly and closed his eyes tightly. Occasionally, he would
bend over and scream-sing a streamed mix of baby-babble gobbledygook and
harshly melodic scatting into the sax mic. I watched him. So did the
musicians on stage, which included John Medeski on a whole buncha keyboards,
Eric Kalb from Deep Banana Blackout on drums, and others. I thought he was
some crazy avant-free-jazz conductor. Near the end of the first set, when
bassist Mike Rivard introduced the band, I realized that the reedman – Joe
Maneri – was merely a special guest and that it was actually the mostly
unassuming Rivard who led the ensemble.
Club d'Elf is his bag and it always has been. I knew that the group was more
a collective than a band, with only one (or a few) steady members. I was
just unsure which ones they were. It began as a regular gig at the Lizard
Lounge in the green pastures of Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few regulars
came and went, and a double-album was issued by Grapeshot/Live Archive
highlighting some of the collaborations. The Club, as it were, doesn't
really seem to have a standard repertoire (though there were some charts
littered about the stage), though they certainly have a common approach and
There were eight musicians onstage for most of the set: Rivard, Medeski,
Kalb, Joe Maneri (the old dude) on reeds, Mat Maneri (his son) on electric
viola (or was it violin?), Mr. Rourke on turntables, a random extra
percussionist, and – the key to the band – Brahim Fribgane. It is Fribgane
that seemingly transforms the unit from an all-star cast into a rolling
textural revue. It was his percussion – and, later, his oud (a weird lookin'
Middle Eastern lute-like situation) – that the band centered around. There
was melody, for sure, but it was secondary. This was okay. Mat Maneri played
some interesting stuff, but my brain tends to automatically file any
electric violin as utterly distasteful. The younger Maneri contributed more
effectively by playing wah-muted rhythms.
There was rhythm, too, but I wouldn't call Club d'Elf a groove outfit.
Surely, they did groove, but it wasn't so directed that it was a
single-minded funk. It was too thick and polyrhythmic for that. At one point
during the set, the music broke down to a duet between Fribgane and Mr.
Rourke. Three of the musicians onstage – Medeski, Kalb, and Rivard – clapped
along. Each clapped different rhythms, and each was exactly right. The
polyrhythms actually allowed the music to live in a space somewhere between
free jazz and groove music: tight enough to stay focused, but big enough for
myriad unexpected pleasures.
The accidental transposition of Joe Maneri as bandleader was interesting to
me, because it gave me a center to the music. His actions became the focus,
and what I metaphorically interpreted all the other music around. It made
for a nice and interesting puzzle. When I realized my mistake, the sound of
the whole ensemble shifted with my ear. The music made a little more sense,
though it wasn't as nicely mysterious. Even with the correct alignment,
though, the band made a vast and rich sound that, while certainly cluttered,
was never tired sounding. There was plenty of constantly shifting room for
the ear to explore, for both the listeners and the musicians.
Last night, Jesse Jarnow dreamed of
a graduation from Wonderland.