MILTON — In the basement of a house in an unsuspecting neighborhood here, centuries and cultures are fusing rather radically.
Mike Rivard is leading three Club d'Elf bandmates through a rhythmically complicated Algerian song, his electric bass lines tying everything together. Boujemaa Razgui, only an occasional collaborator with this bunch, watches drummer Dean Johnston closely and adds percussion textures on doumbek. Rivard makes quick eye contact with keyboardist Paul Schultheis to cue a return to the melody; the latter has a stripped-down rig for rehearsal, but on the gig he’ll color earthy folk tunes like this with the Technicolor sounds of his Moog and Fender Rhodes.
Club d’Elf is part band and part musical laboratory, with shifting combinations of players augmenting the core members on any given night. For 15 years the intimate confines of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge have been its headquarters; an anniversary-themed show there Friday features a sprawling, eight-piece ensemble.
“I try to make guests feel like they can do anything, that we’re going to be there to follow them through whatever musical thicket they lead us to,” Rivard says later, on the phone. “I’m like a tour director, somebody pulling the bus over and having everybody pile out and check out some ruins, or some cool vista that’s off the side of the road. I try to listen with really big ears and just hear everything that’s happening. And when somebody is playing something that hasn’t happened before, or suggests an interesting detour, then I’ll corral everybody.”
Composer and bandleader, he’s the center of gravity on acoustic and electric basses, plus the sintir, a three-stringed African instrument typically described as a bass lute.
By turns earthy and electric, meditative and booty-shaking, the sound is a groove-heavy stew bolstered by heavy doses of gnawa, a Moroccan folk style. At its funkiest, Club d’Elf recalls the more straight-ahead efforts of Medeski Martin & Wood — which fits, since John Medeski is a longtime collaborator. Open-ended vamps frequently tilt toward the snarling sorcery of fusion-era Miles Davis. Some tunes hinge on the accelerated breakbeats of drum and bass, while Brahim Fribgane’s percussion and rippling melodic lines on oud (a Middle Eastern lute) propel original songs in the style of the Berber people of North Africa.
“It’s not a mash-up. It’s not a clash to expose a clash,” turntablist and core member Mister Rourke observes. “But you can’t help but look at it and say: What the heck? You’ve got this guy over here digitally scratching mp3s, and then you’ve got this guy playing a sintir covered in camel skin. It’s bananas, really.”
Rivard, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, was already a busy session guy (and member of the late Mark Sandman’s side band Hypnosonics) when he called together associates from the Boston scene to inaugurate Club d’Elf in 1998. North African music was already in the mix, but things coalesced about a year later with the addition of Fribgane, a native of Casablanca and frequent collaborator of gnawa masters like Hassan Hakmoun. Rivard, Fribgane, and drummer Erik Kerr holed up in the Concord church where Kerr served as pastor, working out the unconventional Moroccan rhythms and time signatures until it all clicked.
The ensemble conscripts chops-wielding innovators and session aces from the worlds of rock and jazz, types who have devoted admirers but aren’t household names. Guest chairs have been filled by Skerik, Marco Benevento, Reeves Gabrels, Marc Ribot, Dana Colley, Kenwood Dennard, Duke Levine, the late Joe Maneri, Hakmoun, and dozens of others. (Sandman played early on.)
Fribgane, who grew up listening to gnawa and playing Moroccan pop at parties and weddings, says he’s impressed with the level of collaboration at play in any Club d’Elf gig.
“Everybody’s ready to learn,” he says. “They’re open to Berber music or Indian music or whatever it is, but they’re creative with it. They’re not copying. We experiment, but in the meantime we’re actually creating something.”
However, the genre-defying sound and unconventional membership plot haven’t proven conducive to commercial growth. The band sometimes ventures on short tours of favorite venues, but mainly stays close to home; though notable shows frequently sell out, Club d’Elf still hasn’t quite outgrown its birthplace.
On the night of a particularly hot gig, with the Lizard Lounge packed to the gills, there’s an electric vibe that screams of importance. But when the ensemble has hopped crosstown for the odd gig at the Paradise or the Middle East, the magic has not always translated fully.
“The Lizard Lounge is a very special place where we can do whatever we want, and we don’t have that opportunity in a lot of settings,” Rivard says. “A lot of the reason it’s lasted this long is because it’s been tended with care and respect and protection.”
After 15 years, countless shows and two studio albums, the body of work is impressive — even if its very singularity prevents it from launching a trend.
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