Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Mostly Other People Do the Killing Remain “Disastrously” Wonderful

Jazz pranksters Mostly Other People Do the Killing return as an acoustic piano trio with electronics, peddling tuneful tales of destruction on Disasters Vol. 1.

Disasters Vol. 1
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Hot Cup Records
18 February 2022

Mostly Other People Do the Killing last jazzed us up with musical wit in 2017, the longest period between MOPDTK recordings since the group debuted in 2007 as a piano-less quartet. Paint was the first time the band recorded as a trio, with pianist Ron Stabinsky continuing upon the departure of saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Finally, they are back, still a trio, with stalwart-manic drummer Kevin Shea and the band’s composer and bassist Moppa Elliot remaining. The band are as brilliant and delicious as ever.

So many things make MOPDTK unique in the world of creative, improvised music. Some folks only know that this was the group that re-recorded Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, note for note “and why would anyone do such a ridiculous thing?” Yes, they are a quirky outfit: every original MOPDTK song is named after a location in Pennsylvania. Many of their album covers have been parodies of old, classic jazz covers, and they approach the past with a post-modern combination of utter reverence and unvarnished humor. MOPDTK sometimes includes liner notes for its albums attributed to a jazz critic named “Leonardo Featherweight”, but the bigger truth is that they have a unique sound that lifts your spirits.

Their Blue thought experiment was meticulous and devilishly controlled – a way of asking music fans of all kinds what it means to “cover” someone else’s music or to show reverence for a “text”. Everything else that Elliot and his friends have done is at the opposite end of the spectrum: antic, extroverted, and playfully smart.

Disasters Vol. 1 contains eight tunes, mostly jaunty and driving, each somewhat ironically representing a different tragedy from Pennsylvania history. If that sounds parochial, then know that Elliot has a way of making his home state represent all the things on your mind – in this case, mainly climate change, climate disasters, and the way that people’s lives exist at risk from larger forces. He leads off with “Three Mile Island” and gets around to fracking, wildfires, flooding, and mining disasters. Somehow, the engaging and tuneful piano trio music that emerges seems connected to these ideas. How that works is the alchemy of this band.

Part of what makes the music relevant and interesting is that MOPDTK have chosen to play their piano trio “straight” but alongside accompanying electronics—noise, percussion, synth melodies, all kinds of sonic hi-jinx. So, on “Three Mile Island”, the trio start with chaos (a meltdown!): dripping harmonies, fragmented rhythms, Shea’s drums as a disruptive force, synth stabs, and electronic clatters, whooshes, pulsing swells. Coming out of that, however, is a piano trio melody that sings and hops with optimism as the electronic chaos turns whimsical and complementary. Does it represent Three Mile Island being saved from total meltdown? Or are we hearing the disaster in reverse? Either way, it is a clever tickle of enjoyment.

In some respects, this MOPDTK  outing is a concerto for Kevin Shea’s enormously playful approach to drum accompaniment. Though he plays it straight for a portion of nearly every tune, the performances are set up for him to take off at some point, becoming not exactly a soloist but more of a featured force of nature.

For example, on ” Exeter “, he lets loose even more than on the nuclear meltdown. This tune narrates a tragic 1959 mining disaster in which the waters of the Shenandoah River accidentally flooded a coal mine, creating a deadly whirlpool. The melody has a sunny bounce to it, but Shea plays along like a saboteur, crashing through the walls of the Tin Pan Alley-styled tune, using triggered synth sounds to remove us from comfort further. Even on “Boyertown”, a slow, brooding march, set to Shea’s New Orleans feeling and led by Elliot’s arco bass, Shea holds back until his antics trickle out and become the highlight of the track.

The use of electronics also goes well beyond the whimsical. “Wilkes Barre” puts a slippery synth line upfront, playing over, around, and in call-and-response with Elliot’s catchy melody for piano. The middle section opens up into a few chances for improvisation, with all the voices (including the synth) veering off into stranger territory before snapping back to the melody. The last go-round of the theme is just for the piano, but Shea again becomes the electric presence, making his drums a barely-holding-it-together element of the band.

“Marcus Hook” combines both the electronics and Shea’s mercurial style into a joyous head fake. It is, at its core, a blues-drenched theme explored at mid-tempo, with Elliot playing the melody with a beefy bass sound before handing it over to Stabinsky. You might convince yourself that this is an old-school, meat-and-potatoes piano trio (something by Ray Bryant? or Cyrus Chestnut?), but then Shea shifts from a jazz/backbeat accompaniment to polyrhythmic accents that threaten to fall off the rails. Then, suddenly, he drops out and chimes in with atonal synth pitches as bass and piano repeat the theme straight. Does this evoke an oil tanker collision? Uh, who really cares?

Most of the performances on Disasters are relatively terse, coming in under five minutes. “Johnstown”, however, moves the listener through a series of transformations of melody, tempo, and style without feeling like one of John Zorn’s stitched-together constructions. Elliot’s compositional style keeps the first acoustic section focused and pulsing even as it morphs. But, halfway through, electronics sweep in and clear the deck, leading to the album’s most haunting and sensitive section of playing. Moody electronica gives way to delicious minor playing with a modal tinge that skips into waltz time. And, despite the 14-and-a-half minute running time, it is the best thing on Disasters.

It’s easy to miss the original Mostly Other People Do the Killing line-up. Evans was a pyrotechnically original voice on trumpet and Irabagon was able to play any way that was necessary (expressly OUT or gorgeously, Getz-ishly IN). But I’m okay with Ron Stabinsky’s wonderful versatility too. My ears don’t hear him as a game-changing artist, but in a sense, he gives the new MOPDTK exactly what it needs: melody and ease across a stylistic range. On “Centralia”, for example, he evokes Ethan Iverson some, sounding both modern and steeped in tradition. It is about as driving and propulsive a theme you can imagine from an acoustic piano trio, this side of that original version of the Bad Plus. Written as a theme for a town with a mine fire burning beneath the ground that the (few remaining) residents walk on, it suggests HOT in every respect.

Like all the MOPDTK music, however, “Centralia” turns us upside down, ending with a half-minute of eerie synthesizer atmosphere. Just when you think you know where Moppa Elliot and his band are taking you, the jester pops out to lead you in another direction. And, given how painfully serious and programmed “creative” music can sometimes be, Mostly Other People Do the Killing continue to have a critical mission: to delight with surprise, averting disaster with a sense of joy.

RATING 7 / 10