Club d Elf as reviewed in Phantom TollboothGinger Baker’s musical love-child goes clubbing around the world

Label:  Face Pelt Records
Time: 25 Tracks /152 minutes

There is film of Cream’s Ginger Baker getting psychedelic in Africa and drumming with the locals. The first album in Club d’Elf’s unusual double-pack, Electric Moroccoland reminds me of this and even gives clues to the influence of that era with a title that harks back to Hendrix. Yes, there is a lot of late ‘60s psychedelia here and even more noodling.

But to show it’s not just me reading that into the sound, they have covered Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” in probably its most original form ever. While there is a fair bit of organ, the vocals have been translated into Moroccan and so has the whole culture of the thing. You could hear it and miss that riff if you weren’t paying attention.

Club d’Elf is a revolving group of musicians with a central core. It includes bassist and bandleader Mike Rivard, John Medeski, drummer Erik Kerr and DJ Logic, as well as former David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Hassan Makmoun and the late Mark Sandman. Much of the style is based on African trance and has developed from Rivard’s growing interest in Moroccan Gnawa music, particularly its sintir, a three-stringed bass.

If the title hints at psychedelia, it also name-checks Africa. African rhythms and trance pervade the disc and most tracks end a lot faster than they begin. One of the few vocal tracks, the melodic “Ghir Khoudouni” shows off this side with plenty of oud and less western intervention.

“Scorpionic” is one of the jazzier tracks, featuring piano and Moroccan strings in a beautiful fusion of cultures. It is the more organic rhythms of this half that show more of North Africa.

The second disc is the one that brings things back into the 21st century, while keeping the jazzy, improvisational mood. So Below has a crisper, sharper sound. “Getting Squinty” has a sparkling guitar riff that fizzes over a Manchester drum pattern and a bass that sounds like it has just bubbled up from the earth’s core. Some nicely scratched vocals ride its wave, while the whole thing has a gorgeous, spacey vibe, and when it’s over, there are still another 70 minutes left.

Fans of Jeff Beck’s Wired or Brand X’s jazz-rock should love this, as the feel is as relaxed and jazzy, while being made by musicians with a rock sensibility. This one just happens to be a bit more digital in feel, but from the same spirit.

The eleven-minute title track revs things up a bit and adds some brass, electric piano and organ to bring back a bit of the last millennium, but there is still a clubby edge to this.

A few tracks step off onto a side-road: after a half hour “I Wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down” introduces some bluesy vocals with some slide guitar and a distinctly southern states mood. “As Above” has a funky dub undercurrent with oud, turntables and other flotsam and jetsam floating over the top. Bonus track “Propeller” is unusually frantic.

While both highly improvisational discs mash up genres as much as their cross-cultural roots, the first slighty emphasises the live, noodly birth pangs of prog, while the second has more the feel of studio re-construction. So Below excites me and could be worth the price on its own, but Electric Moroccoland, while very enjoyable, just lacks its edge.

Derek Walker