Floating heavyweights

Club d'Elf, Julian Lage, Jérôme Sabbagh, and Michael Feinberg
By JON GARELICK  |  April 13, 2011

Julian Lage
RADICAL Lage’s “guitaristic” fusions recall those of the early Gary Burton Quartet.

Another impossibly busy early-spring schedule of live music lies ahead for the next fortnight — and we haven't even gotten to Jazz Week (April 29–May 8). But let's hit just a handful of the musicians coming to town with new CDs.

First up are home-town favorites Club d'Elf, the brainchild of bassist Mike Rivard. With a core group of musicians and a rotating cast of special guests, Rivard has been exploring the trance music of the Gnawan people of Morocco — as inflected by dub, funk, and jazz — every other Thursday at Lizard Lounge, almost without interruption, since the summer of 1998. They celebrate their new double CD, Electric Moroccoland/So Below (Face Pelt), in an April 22 show at the Lizard as part of a short tour that also takes them to Portland's Port City Music Hall on the 21st.

Albums for Rivard are always a challenge, since, as he tells me on the phone from his home in Somerville, "You can't have a two-minute trance." Much the band's issue on disc has been mixed from live shows, like the three double discs they put out on Kufala in 2004. Some of these sessions — with players like John Medeski, Dave Tronzo, Randy Roos, Tom Hall, and Mat Maneri — recalled the best of Miles Davis's live avant-electric shitstorms of the early '70s. But Rivard also knows how to use the studio to fashion discrete, songlike portions of varied moods for his albums, as on 2005's politically tinged Accurate release Now I Understand.

For Electric Moroccoland, he put together tracks focused on traditional songs, sometimes with vocalists like Hassan Hakmoun (whose Gift of the Gnawa was an early inspiration). Aside from the trad pieces, Hakmoun performs a killer version of "Sunshine of Your Love" in Moroccan Arabic. At the core of Electric Moroccoland are traditional instruments like Brahim Fribgane's oud and Rivard's three-string camel-skinned Moroccan "bass," the sintir. A variety of percussion helps lay down the chattering 12/8 beat called the chaabi, which Rivard dubs "the Bo Diddley beat of Morocco." Club d'Elf's polyglot is never less than compelling, enhanced by the electronics of Mister Rourke's turntables (the equivalent of talking drum), Medeski's woozy mellotron, and those occasional screaming guitars. So Below cross-references the American equivalent of trance: James Brown funk and greasy soul-jazz organ trios. But the exotic flavor of each disc is pure North Cambridge d'Elf. (The line-up on the 22nd will include Medeski, Fribgane, Tronzo, Rourke, Hall, keyboardist Paul Schultheis, trumpeter Yaure Muniz, percussionist Jerry Leake, and drummer Dean Johnston.)

Like a lot of musicians in town, Rivard pays homage to the late Mark Sandman for his current path. It was Sandman who lent him the Hakmoun album — and Sandman's work appears on the disc (which includes tracks as old as 11 years), as does the Morphine tune "Rope on Fire" (sung by Chris Cote). Although he quickly made inroads with the Moroccan musical community in Cambridge and New York, it wasn't till 2009 that Rivard got to the country itself, as part of a cultural delegation from Somerville to its sister city Tiznit. Aside from the value of absorbing the culture first hand, Rivard says, the trip gave him the confidence to complete the ElectricMoroccoland/So Below project. "Until I went there, there was always the nagging feeling that it wasn't authentic enough." Getting positive feedback from musicians in Morocco was "a process of deepening and validation."

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