Moppa Elliott and his merry band of feather rufflers make a slightly safer album this time around, but it's no less an adventure.
Moppa Elliott's Mostly Other People Do the Killing have taken quite a few liberties lately. In 2013, they screwed around with smooth jazz. Later that year they celebrated pre-bop/Spanish tinge jazz with their Red Hot! release. Then in the following year they did something that the jazz police would consider a punishable offense: they covered one of the genre's most beloved classics from front to back. It used to be that the most these guys would try to do is lovingly mock the artwork of iconic jazz albums like Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music, Art Blakey's A Night in Tunisia, and Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert. Then Mostly Other People Do the Killing had to go and play with fire, knowing full well that the musical genre they represent is full of conservative patrons. All About Jazz writer Dave Wayne put it this way: "If you doubt their ability to rile the jazz world, all you have to do is post one of their videos on your Facebook page and wait for the ensuing kerfuffle to begin."
Mauch Chunk makes an effort to distance itself from any kerfuffle. The band has steadied its lineup into a quartet of Elliott on bass, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, Ron Stabinsky on piano, and Kevin Shea on drums. The sound has circled back to the band's original chamber combo/post-bop identity. And while all seven of Mauch Chunk's compositions are Elliott originals, each one is reverently dedicated to other artists. The inspirations for these pieces seems genuine even while the stories remain convoluted and execution entirely too academic. I point to the press release for examples:
"Stabinsky's piano solo is over the minor key section of the form that changes to the major under Irabagon's saxophone solo and recalls the harmony of 'All of Me'."
"The melody of the first section repeats and develops through several tonal centers, while the secondary theme includes fragments of Veloso's composition, 'Cobra Coral'. During the ending vamp, Stabinsky wryly quotes Elliott's 'Hop Bottom Hop' from the album Shamokin!!!, as well as the William Tell Overture."
"In each melody, the same figure occurs in the break on the same pitch, creating a contrasting harmonic color in each of the three keys."
I suppose. It all sort of reeks of a look-how-clever-we-are front that would be infuriating if Mauch Chunk wasn't just an all-around enjoyable album to get to know. The first track, despite the confusing backstory of how a town in Pennsylvania named Mauch Chunk was changed to Jim Thorpe to boost tourism, can move you to shake your head and tap your toes in widely disparate meters. The title "Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe" is meant to mirror the title of Henry Threadgill's composition "Spotted Dick Is Pudding", and the novel thing is that it doesn't attempt to sound Threadgillian. You don't need an "All of Me" comparison to get into this.
"West Bolivar" and "Obelisk" both feature a little south-of-the-border spice, which isn't surprising considering that the former is dedicated to Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso. "Obelisk", for Dave Holland, lets Irabagon walk all over the sound. Seriously, if he were to be paid per solo, Mauch Chunk would make him a rich man. "Niagra" may deal out a more pensive card (dedicated to the late Will Connell), but the wistful closer "Mehoopany" is a definite highlight. Stabinsky plunks out a whimsical '50s lounge figure ornamented with harmless dissonance while Shea keeps the beat cool as a cucumber.
Nearing 12 minutes in length, you could say that "Townville" is Mauch Chunk's centerpiece since the number of changes that occur and the variety they bring is meant to take the listen on a miniature tour of Mostly Other People Do The Killing's abilities. Are these guys a bunch of show offs? Perhaps. Then again, your favorite athlete is probably a show off. He/she likely out-showboats any given member of this band. If you can forgive your favorite athlete by constantly forking your cash over to them, why not do the same with a band that can melody-drop the William Tell Overture?