For their latest avant rendering of jazz and culture in a broader sense, MOPDTK take on trad jazz in a decidedly non-traditional manner, using literary titans from Pynchon to Joyce to Vonnegut as source material.
One of the guiding aesthetic tenants of Moppa Elliott’s Mostly Other People Do the Killing has long been sly references to identifiable cultural touchstones. Whether through their recreations of iconic jazz album covers on their earliest outings or their subversion of the form in general, MOPDTK has taken the familiar and turned it on its ear. For their latest release, Loafer’s Hollow, Elliott again turns to well-known source material as the basis for his idiosyncratic compositional approach. Instead of jazz -- or even music in general --, he turns to some of his favorite passages in literature, converting them into a form of post-modern traditional jazz of the bizarro varietal. It’s an intriguing idea in theory made even more so by its wildly imaginative practical application.
On its surface, the album is an otherwise straightforward reading of trad jazz with decidedly avant-garde leanings. And while there are certainly plenty of elements of a trad jazz sound -- much of this coming through in the form of Brandon Seabrook’s banjo -- MOPDTK has been and always will be an avant-garde jazz group. Less than two minutes into opening track “Hi-Nella", the entire band breaks for a nearly two-minute solo trumpet improvisation from Steven Bernstein that obliterates the previously established form in its seemingly formless exploration of drones, flourishes, and other non-traditional trumpet sounds. This last part is critical as, though his approach is certainly musical, Bernstein here is looking to create sounds on his instrument that subvert the trad jazz approach that bookends the track.
“Honey Hole", perhaps the most traditionally-minded piece on the album, rolls along on a pre-bebop, Count Basie/Duke Ellington aesthetic underscored by Kevin Shea’s tumultuous drumming. Indicative of the bands’ approach, this refusal to play anything entirely straight is at the heart of their appeal, allowing for genuine surprises to come about organically rather than feeling forced (check the out-of-left-field electronics courtesy of Seabrook that helps usher in the close of the track). It’s a wildly imaginative approach to otherwise staid notions of what jazz could/should be.
It’s not until “Bloomsburg” that Elliott’s ‘literary suite’ comes into play, the track dedicated to James Joyce and the lead character from his epic Ulysses. Like Joyce’s own idiosyncratically inimitable style, Elliott’s compositional approach here is one of a free-flowing, seemingly structure-less narrative that allows for each instrumentalist’s individual voice to come to the fore. Yet despite this largely free approach, it still manages a remarkable cohesion that helps hold the track together. Wandering and often non-linear, “Bloomsburg", like its inspirational source, can be something of a heady acquired taste, but ultimately one well worth it if given the chance to simply experience on its own terms rather than within a conventionally understood manner.
Similarly, “Kilgore", named for that favorite literary conduit of Kurt Vonnegut’s own thoughts and ideas, relies on an almost cartoonish lead from trombonist Dave Taylor that leads into an equally surreal extended solo passage from saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Beginning with an impossibly long toneless drone that devolves into a series of squeaks and squawks, Irabagon wrestles all manner of sounds both intriguing and grating from his soprano saxophone before ceding control once more to the full band. It’s a thrillingly incongruous passage that shows Irabagon’s free jazz chops and sense of playful experimentation on his instrument to not have been lessened by the band’s otherwise straight-forward approach to a pre-bebop style of jazz.
The remainder of the album continues in much the same way, with full band motifs giving way to extended unaccompanied solo passages showcasing each member of the band while working their way through such literary giants as Thomas Pynchon (“Mason and Dixon", with yet another killer solo from Irabagon), Cormac McCarthy (“Meridian”) and David Foster Wallace (“Glen Riddle”). While potentially high-minded in concept, in execution Elliott’s work on Loafer’s Hollow continues this wildly exploratory group’s loving embrace of jazz and its history, albeit one filtered through a fractured, post-modernist lens. It’s this lack of self-seriousness that helps make an otherwise alienating art form using as its source material equally alienating literary works far more accessible than it should. For this, Elliott and company deserve the highest commendation from those concerned for jazz’s future and continued relevance as a uniquely American art form.