A twisted take on smooth jazz and big bands with Mostly Other People Do the Killing

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Photo by Michael Hoefner
Photo by Michael Hoefner

An irreverent attitude towards jazz orthodoxy has always been central to the sound of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. But on its most recent recordings, the puckishly eclectic quartet has trained its focus on more specific, neglected areas of the music’s history. Last year’s Slippery Rock played with the tropes and sounds of smooth jazz for a set of music that was far from smooth. Now, with Red Hot, the band looks much further back to the less reviled but equally sidelined inspiration of traditional jazz bands of the 1920s.

“Most contemporary, common practice jazz draws on a pretty small window of stuff,” says MOPDTK bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott. “The vast majority of stuff out there is some variation on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers circa 1960, where you’ve got written material at the beginning and the end and a series of solos in the middle. I’ve never really liked stuff like that. A lot of vocabulary from both smooth jazz and early jazz has been omitted from canonized modern jazz because it doesn’t conform to what everybody has settled on as being the way you play jazz.”

However MOPDTK approaches playing jazz, “conform” would hardly be a word that comes to mind. Formed in 2003, the band consists of Elliott, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and drummer Kevin Shea. Each member comes to the group with a stunning array of interests, from classic to avant-garde jazz and into punk and indie rock, free improvisation, and beyond. They combine to form something that’s both inventive and off-the-wall, looked on with suspicion in some circles due to their sense of humor but impossible to dismiss because of their virtuosic musicianship.

Elliott, who grew up in central PA, draws on the bizarre names of towns in the state for the titles of his tunes. Past albums have included Shamokin!!! and Forty Fort, while the new album makes reference to “King of Prussia,” “Zelienople,” and “Bird-in-Hand.” After six studio albums, he has yet to run out of oddly-monikered locales.

On Red Hot, the core quartet – which performs Saturday night at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in a concert presented by Ars Nova Workshop – is augmented by three additional members: trombonist Dave Taylor, banjo player Brandon Seabrook and pianist Ron Stabinsky. In its septet format, MOPDTK more closely parallels pioneering jazz bands like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven or Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Echoes of that music is threaded throughout Elliott’s music for the album, albeit distorted and warped almost beyond recognition.

“No one who actually listens to smooth jazz is going to like Slippery Rock,” Elliott happily admits, “and no one who actually listens to traditional jazz is going to like Red Hot. We’re taking those vocabularies and bringing them to the fore of what we as a group do in the first place, which is take things and rip them up into pieces all over the place. We’re a bunch of improvising weirdoes, so when we play either of those things we recontextualize them and bring in other signifiers.”

MOPDTK has developed its own language over the course of the decade, but the prospect of nearly doubling its membership for the recording of Red Hot proved surprisingly easy, Elliott says.

“We’ve played with all of those guys a lot and knew that they had similar musical conceptions to ours. They knew exactly what I wanted them to do, which is why they were the people that we added. Sometimes Brandon plays straight quarter notes a la regular banjo and then totally freaks out and turns on electronics; I didn’t have to instruct him to do that, it’s what he does anyway. The same with Dave Taylor – some of my favorite moments on the record are times when I wrote out the melody that I wanted the trombone to play and he doesn’t come close to playing it on the beats that I wanted or he comes in at the wrong time on purpose. He comes in two beats early at one point and creates this giant train wreck that eventually fixes itself. That’s the stuff that I can’t write, but it’s the stuff that I want to have happen all the time.”

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

Mostly Other People Do the Killing performs tonight at 8 p.m. at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. The all-ages show begins at 8 p.m., tickets are $15, more information can be found here.

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