Crossing musical boundaries is something that some artists do better than others. Club d’Elf must be near the top of the tree in this respect, with their genre-leaping, eclectic fusion of dub-jazz, prog-rock, drum ‘n’ bass, psychedelic Moroccan dosed improvisational music. As much defined by sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, as by the parallel universes of Miles Davis and Fela Kuti, the band draws its inspiration from many diverse sources. Featuring keyboard wizard John Medeski, along with Brahim Fribgane, Duke Levine, Mister Rourke, Mike Rivard and Dean Johnston, this Boston based collective excel in the combined use of analogue keys and synths, guitars, turntables, laptops, horns, tablas and all manner of exotic instruments. Other guest contributors include DJ Logic, Mark Sandman, Hassan Hakmoun and Billy Martin, as the band take to the stage to embrace their non-convention with their musical menagerie of sound and spirit.Live at Club Helsinki is a double album of improvisational acumen, performed and recorded at one of the band’s favourite venues. The combination of excellent sound, intimate environment and an audience tuned into the band’s every nuance, makes for a heady mix as the album captures the feel of two complete continuous sets of improv and classic Club d’Elf tunes.
Disc one starts with the free jazz opening of “Mogador”, featuring Medeski on grand piano, and segues seamlessly into one of the finest tracks on the album, “Africa”, driven by the brilliant, rootsy Telecaster of Duke Levine. The whole performance throughout this album constantly shifts from one style of music to another, almost tormenting the audience in a quirky kind of way, as if to say, ‘I bet you didn’t see this coming’. And yet Club d’Elf are masters at this, succeeding where many try and fail, with the incredible achievement of making it sound so natural that so many different styles can be mounded together to create something new, exciting and ultimately skillful and very enjoyable. “The Booloolu” employs an almost long forgotten groove, whilst “Hegaz” is based on a traditional Arabic scale. There is at times a wonderful flow to the music, as the solos sparkle and the deep grooves flirt with vivacious exuberance. The bass driven hip-hop of “Secret Atom” showcases the wizardry of Mister Rourke, whose rock-steady beat-matching and ability to pitch samples into the key of the song set him apart from many DJ’s. The first set closes with “Berber Song”, featuring some blistering solos from Medeski and Levine.
The Moroccan influence comes to the fore on the second set, beginning with a tribute to the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinia. “Zeed Al Maal” is another album highlight, featuring the vocals of Fribgane and Rivard’s intense and commanding playing of the Moroccan sintir, a camel skin covered bass lute. “Power Plant” follows, with Levine adding a James Bond-esque melody over a sintir propelled rhythm. The band then flows effortlessly into “Salvia” and “Green Screen”, with dance-floor filling electro-jams fuelled by Medeski’s funky clavinet. The last tune “Sidi Rabi” features Fribgane’s oud and vocals, closing the set on a spiritual note.
Club d’Elf have been drawing on a wide spectrum of styles since their formation in 1998. Each performance can feature a different line-up, drawn from a constellation of some of the most creative musicians from the jazz, DJ, rock and world music scenes of Boston and New York City, and “Live at Club Helsinki” captures well exactly what this band are all about.