MOPDTK Gets All Literary

Mostly Other People Do the KillingLoafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup, 2017)

mostlyother-loafersHow old is Mostly Other People Do the Killing? Old enough that they once had a Myspace page (and possibly still do).

How old is this blog? Old enough that when I reviewed the band’s third album — the very album reviewed on the blog — I mentioned their Myspace page unironically.

Say what you will about the blog, but the band has aged well, evolving and experimenting while still adhering to its original formula: Mixing styles that pay homage to jazz through the ages, while naming every track after real towns in Pennsylvania. Expanded to a septet, the band goes even deeper with the energy and twisted creativity that have been its hallmarks.

After 13 years and now 10 albums, you’d think bassist Moppa Elliott, the band’s leader and songwriter, would be out of amusing names — but no! He’s not only kept up the trend but has also found towns that relate to five great authors. The result is a five-track span of Loafer’s Hollow that suddenly becomes a book club: “Bloomsburg” is dedicated to James Joyce, “Kilgore” to Kurt Vonnegut, “Mason and Dixon” to Thomas Pynchon.

Moreover, each of those five compositions is based on music that Elliott set to the authors’ words. (Loafer’s Hollow, by the way, is original name of a town now called Library.)

Musically, you can’t tell. The touchstone era for Loafer’s Hollow is the ballroom-stomping jazz of the ’40s. The music carries a “hot club” feel, and Brandon Seabrook’s banjo is a nicely bucolic touch.

The layer on top of that, of course, is madcap free jazz. So you get Jon Irabagon’s soprano-sax babble to start “Five,” or an impossibly long pause on “Kilgore” where he creates the smallest sound possible out of his horn, a subliminal creak that’s the unaccompanied introduction to a wild solo. Or Ron Stabinsky, on that same track, gradually going insane on the piano, staring out with a a rapid boogie-woogie vibe that gets even faster, then starts to wobble. The suspense is palpable.

Trumpeter Peter Evans has left the band, but replacement Steven Bernstein is a known quantity and obviously no slouch. He gets to declare his presence early on the album with an unaccompanied solo on “Hi-Nella,” starting with an impressively sustained high-pitch siren sound. On “Bloomsberg,” he and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (another crucial veteran added to the lineup) trade licks in a comedic bit of one-upsmanship.

The band has a smart-aleck reputation, but they’re earnest in paying homage to old jazz styles. You get to hear that side on “Meridian” (the Cormac McCarthy piece), an honestly good, straightforward song with a nostalgic mellow tint and a hardy beat. (Oh, and a Seabrook banjo solo that sticks to the way-up-there upper register, where the notes come out like tinny clicks.)

Loafer’s Hollow will be released on Feb. 24.

Ron Stabinsky Stands Alone

Ron StabinskyFree for One (Hot Cup, 2016)

stabinsky-freefor-cropThe newest Mostly Other People Do the Killing record was notable for the new voice of Ron Stabinsky on piano. (He was also on Blue, their Kind of Blue reproduction.)

Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.

As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:

Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.

“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.

One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.

You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Piano Version

Mostly Other People Do the KillingMauch Chunk (Hot Cup, 2015)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Mauch ChunkNow that Mostly Other People Do the Killing has a pianist, I’m glad to see that he’s not just there to play the role of the straight man. But I’m also glad he’s not there to plunge into 100% free jazz.

For 12 years, MOPDTK has mixed swing and bebop with smart-alecky, off-the-rails playing. Bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott has found a formula that injects humor and way-outside soloing into straight-laced compositions.

For Mauch Chunk, the band’s eighth album, trumpeter Peter Evans is gone, with pianist Ron Stabinsky filling the void. The addition of a chord instrument, and one with so much potential to be cheesy and loungy, means a noticeable change of sound, so I was very curious to hear this album. We technically heard Stabinksy on the band’s previous studio album, Blue — the Kind of Blue replica — but how much of that was him, really? (That’s part of the debate.)

Left with one horn soloist, MOPDTK could settle into a formula: Jon Irabagon gets all nutty on sax while the piano maintains the swing and the chords. And that’s how the opening track, “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe,” starts out, with Stabinsky laying down a straight jazz-club sound behind the theme, played in attitude-laden curls by Irabagon. And Stabinsky continues with straight comping while Irabagon’s solo increasingly warbles further and further off the rails.

But eventually, Stabinsky joins in, too. It’s around the time Irabagon pulls out a “happy as a kitten up a tree” quote that you notice Stabinsky has gone into a frenzied pounding. The pianist is in on the joke, too.

Something similar happens on “Obelisk.” Listen as Stabinsky and Elliott hold the center while Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea surf the astral plane. It’s followed by a new phase where the piano goes into staccato jackhammering mode.

But often, the piano is a jazz anchor for the band’s wanderings, and that’s a good thing. MOPDTK isn’t just about free jazz and crazy solos; its foundation is a deep knowledge of the past and the application of old ideas in new settings. So when Stabinsky goes through a long stretch of straight chording, that’s all right. It fits, and the band is richer for it.

Irabagon is great, as ever, his bebop-gone-mad solos packed with hard-fought surprises. He doesn’t just play the tune; he plays the whole attitude of the band. Elliott on bass and Shea on drums stoke the fire, pushing the mostly hard tempos of Elliott’s smart, snappy compositions.

The band in a nutshell can be experienced on “Townville.” It goes zero-to-sixty right away, the band members pushing one another hard. But the bright-burning solos are followed by an avant-garde intrusion: Irabagon reduces down to whispers and subliminal moans on sax, behind some perky free playing from the rest of the band. Then they pull back into hard-swing mode. It’s a workout.

As usual, the songs are named after obscure Pennsylvania towns — with the caveat that Mauch Chunk is now named Jim Thorpe, as the song title says. There’s a poignant story behind that, which I leave you to discover in Elliott’s CD notes.

Here’s “Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe.”

Blue. Just … Blue

I have not listened to Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Blue (Hot Cup Records, 2014), other than the samples on Squidco. But one of those samples is the opening passage to “So What.” I don’t have Kind of Blue memorized, but I do know those opening bars, and it sounds like they really did reproduce the track — every note.

Click for larger version. Why do you want a larger version?
Click for larger version. Why do you want a larger version?

That’s the concept behind Blue, which you might call more a performance-art piece than a normal album. It’s a re-creation of Kind of Blue, as close to the original as they could get, with lone saxophonist Jon Irabagon overdubbing the Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly parts.

The re-creation does seem to include the solos — again, judging by the one solo passage I know by heart: the first notes of the “So What” trumpet part. What’s more impressive is that they re-created the drumming, something I hadn’t considered before listening. In some ways, Kevin Shea had the hardest job of all.

It’s easy to pass off Blue as a joke, but the more I think about the idea, the more I feel myself getting obsessed with it. It seems like an irresistible personal challenge. To pull this off is worth some bragging rights. And what better way to not only pay homage to a record that, most likely, tops the list of early influences for all these guys, while at the same time getting deeper into the music, finding out what made it tick and sparkle.

I can see how this could build into an obsession over the years, until that day finally comes: “OK, let’s do this. Seriously, let’s get to work.” And Downtown Music Gallery notes that this is Peter Evans’ last album with the band, so it’s nice to bow out with a keen bit of precision jazz acrobatics.

I’m not sure I’m going to buy Blue. But I’m glad they did it.

Mostly Other People Do the Publicity

I blogged about the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing in 2009, and in looking back on that entry, I’m happy to see I didn’t go with the angle of “Wow, is this band irreverent!”

Because the band isn’t supposed to be goofy, name aside. (In fact, the name comes from Leon Theremin’s alleged, not-so-funny quote about Joseph Stalin.) What I did focus on was the band being a mesh of influences tracing through the history of jazz, especially its swingy and brassy (figuratively) tendencies, which seems closer to MOPDTK’s real intent.

I feel kind of good about that while reading the lengthy interview recently published on All About Jazz, where the four MOPTDK members take writer Troy Collins to task for some of the misconceptions about them. I’d shared many of those misconceptions, including the idea that the band is always trying to be funny, so it was a very educational read, a good viewpoint on the band’s perspective.

source: eMusic; click to go thereThat interview was part of a publicity meteor shower that spattered across the Web about two weeks ago in advance of Slippery Rock, the band’s sixth album and their most awesome album cover to date. (I didn’t say they never try to be funny.) It’s the first time in a while that the cover artwork isn’t based on a specific classic album, which made me glad when I found out. As much as I disparage smooth jazz, it bothered me to think there was some seminal smooth-jazz album whose cover I didn’t recognize.  Call it jazz ego.

Apparently, smooth jazz really is the album’s sire, or at least its great-uncle. Moppa Elliott, the bassist and songwriter, started by writing tunes for electric bass and keyboards. Those got jettisoned and the tunes slightly reworked to fit MOPDTK’s normal front line of sax and trumpet.

Getting back to the marketing push behind the album — the band has a video out for “Yo, Yeo, Yough.”  It’s not often that you see a jazz video, let alone one with this kind of staging and storyline. It’s good: funny at first, then maybe a bit unsettling, but in a good way.

“Yo, Yeo, Yough” – Mostly Other People Do the Killing from Yuan Liu on Vimeo.

If you have trouble finding Slippery Rock in stores everywhere (because “stores everywhere” carry so much modern jazz, right? right?), two of your options are CD Baby and eMusic. Neither one pays me to say things like that; I just happen to like ’em.