Moppa Elliott is a jazz bass player with an adventurous spirit and a sense of humor. When he makes an album with his madcap quartet, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, it’s not enough to compose aggressive, catchy themes as the vehicles for daring improvisation. He also needs a kooky koncept. And, frankly, the humor adds to the music. The whole enterprise has the feeling of The Next Great Thing in Jazz.
MOPDTK’s 2008 disc was called This Is Our Moosic, and it merged two krazy koncepts: a tribute to Ornette Coleman (album title, album art, and the band’s piano-less quartet instrumentation) and a tribute to Elliott’s home state of Pennsylvania. Every track on Moosic was named after a town in PA, including a vigorous and faithful version of Billy Joel’s “Allentown”. Given that Elliott, alto player Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Peter Evans, and drummer Kevin Shea are hip-as-you-like downtown New Yorkers these days, you would expected the Joel tune to be a kind of joke. And I guess it was. But then why was it so great to listen to it?
And that is MOPDTK in a nutshell. This music cracks and grins and grooves even as it digs into some avant-garde techniques. It’s noisy and rough, but it’s advanced. All too often in jazz, “advancement” has meant an academic abandonment of joyful spirit. In this respect, Elliott and his pranksters are more like rock musicians: making a joyful mess as they move forward.
The new recording is called Forty Fort, and it also lovingly apes an older jazz album. In this case it is Out of the Afternoon, a 1962 record by drummer Roy Haynes, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Rahsaan Roland Kirk on reeds, and Henry Grimes on bass. Not only has MOPDTK copied the cover design and photograph, but Elliott wrote liner notes credited to “Leonardo Featherweight”, which notes explore the importance in jazz of connecting to the music’s history by exploring the sartorial approach of legendary players.
The playing, of course, is the opposite of slavishly or superficially historical. Elliott’s tunes are alternately grooving and abstract—a neat combination of funkiness and daring that ought to remind some of Julius Hemphill circa his Dogon A.D.. But beyond the written melodies, Elliott crafts the band’s improvisations into interesting arrangements that do not necessarily feature the usual string of individual solos to which jazz records have long been shackled.
“Rough and Ready” starts as a hip and funky tune that might have appeared on a Cannonball Adderley disc in the 1960s, but the improvised sections are another matter. Evans and Irabagon both solo over mad bashing from Shea before intertwining their horns is delirious collective improvisation. This duet devolves into squeaks and squiggles to allow Elliott a duet with Shea before the head returns. But ultimately bass and drums cut out so that trumpet and alto can play a free, buzzing outro. Unusual structure, and it works.
Many other tunes work this way. “Blue Ball” has Evans and Irabagon soloing without accompaniment, except for the passages where they overlap with each other. Ultimately the whole band kicks in to a shaking figure (trumpet and bowed bass in harmony) under an abstract saxophone—no soloing over the chord changes, thank you. “Little Hope” hosts a super-free blowing session that evolves into a strange gutteral section that sounds like a didgeridoo. “Forty Fort” goes through a long series of different settings for improvisation—different rhythms, different combinations of instruments, different tonal feelings, different pairs of improvisers, seeming to find a kaleidoscopic approach to improvising. Best of all, in these many different approaches, MOPDTK is fulfilling a basic imperative of the new century’s jazz: it is finding ways to make the music fresh without necessarily leaving its audience behind. This wide range of settings is different and entertaining. What will these boys be up to next?
Well, how about a super-swinging tune like “St. Mary’s Proctor” that sounds like something from the early swing era, with a touch of wah-wah trumpet, a two-beat bounce, and neatly prescribed harmonies? Cool! And then suddenly Shea cuts out and the tune lurches forward to today, with the players taking mad liberties as Irabagon blows free. Wheeeeeee!
Or how about the date’s one cover tune, Neal Hefti’s “Cute”, played as a drum solo framed by very few ensemble licks making up the melody? Just about anything could happen here, but no matter how zany the concept becomes, it all aims toward your sense of fun—and musicality, excitement and pulse.
Across a landscape where jazz is being taken over by young folks raised in a postmodern environment of cut-and-paste hip-hop, Mostly Other People Do the Killing is doing it right. These players are not pretentious or better than you, they are celebrating the fun of digging in and making music for you. It’s new and daring and loud and not always pretty, but that’s the point. It’s ragged and buzzing with life.
And for all the sense of connection, these guys are good. Very good. They couldn’t make it all seem so offhand if they weren’t a handful of the best players out there. Moppa Elliott and his cats are virtuosos who want to frolic, and you get to listen in. The result, I swear, will make your ears grow a couple of sizes bigger.