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Published: 2004/05/29
by Jesse Jarnow

Club d’Elf, Tonic, NYC- 5/26

NYC ROLL-TOP: Club d’Elf Comes to Tonic

In the first half of the 20th century, jazz musicians like Duke Ellington
and Louis Armstrong toured with ever-morphing orchestras comprised of the
finest players of the day. Mike Rivard's Club d'Elf revives that tradition,
albeit on a smaller scale, for the early 21st. Foraying only occasionally
from Rivard's native Boston, the band's lineup for their recent jaunt to
Manhattan's Tonic included regulars like turntablist Mister Rourke and
percussionist Brahim Fribgane, as well as local buddies keyboardist John
Medeski and guitarist Marc Ribot.

Like their last major tour in spring 2002 – now documented by a double-disc
recording on the Kufala label – Club d'Elf's pass through Tonic had them
revealing the surprisingly supple lines between contemporary groove music
and avant-garde free jazz. Over the course of their early set, with Adam
Deitch behind the kit, they moved from scene to musical scene, mostly
improvising, occasionally (notably when joined by trombonist Curtis
Hasslebring and saxophonist Eric Hipp) adhering to Rivard's charts.

Club d'Elf, if anything, is an outright blob of noise. At first,
especially in the cozy confines of a club, it sounds like chaos. But details
soon begin to reveal themselves. The different segments of the band's jams
might be loosely classified by genre — a reggae groove here, a trance
explosion there. But only loosely. Though things stayed mostly danceable,
that was hardly what called attention to itself about the music. While
Deitch and Fribgane kept the rhythms in constant motion, Rivard played
mediator to the other players, who contributed nuanced patterns that locked
in with various micro-grooves. The musicians bobbed their heads to different
beats.

For the first 20 minutes of the set, this approach seemed like a crutch: a
way to fall back into some kind of organization. Then, suddenly, Ribot was
in charge, tearing off flurries of Cuban country-funk, all jagged and
spasmodic. The band fell in line behind him and, for the duration of the
set, remained on (and, for that matter, out). The music took on a
propulsive quality as the musicians became more emboldened. Leadership was
tossed from player to player. From somewhere, a ska groove emerged. Fribgane
picked it up on tablas and integrated it into his rhythm, while the band
plugged onwards. It was modestly enthralling in the way that only really
gifted and listening jazz players can be.

Though Rivard's experiments with the sintir occasionally fell off the deep
end into the realm of token non-Western amorphousness, the band was a treat
to watch. With top notch friends around the world, a Club d'Elf road gig is
one for most fans of improvised music to watch out for — a heady mix of
psychedelic abstraction, pounding grooves, and lovely avant-noise. As Big In
Japan is to Baltimore, Club d'Elf is to Boston — a band that should travel
more often.

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