I like Mostly Other People Do The Killing (heretofore referred to as MOPDTK) because they’re merry musical marksmen, top drawer jazz musicians who shoot down every style they suggest. But I don’t know how many other people can dig this. The purists must abhor how these guys break so many conventions about how “real” jazz should be played. There’s nothing there for those who prefer crossover or commercial jazz because they do nothing to make their music accessible. Many whack jazz fans might not know what to make of the zaniness and would fret at the references to pop forms. This isn’t a band that’s trying to make a lot of friends, and there’s something to be said about a bunch of artists genuinely unconcerned about reaching a wide audience, even by outside jazz standards.
And yet, this band is perhaps better known within the jazz community than its music would suggest, precisely because of their notoriety. MOPDTK makes a bid to further that notoriety with the issuance of their fifth studio album (sixth overall), entitled Slippery Rock.
Professedly, this album is themed on smooth jazz; yes, you read that right, smooth jazz. But the music offered here isn’t that kind in the least. Instead, the group’s leader and bassist, Moppa Elliott, wrote songs that incorporate the harmonic structure, phrasing and garnishments of the style. There’s also a continuance of the time-honored tradition of quoting from disparate sources, in this case, from Hadyn, Kool and the Gang to Philip Glass. I’m not going to pretend that I can find the connection of Elliott’s music to smooth jazz, or any of these musical quotes (I was somewhat more successful finding the references on Forty Fort), but it is obvious that their fearless irreverence remains intact on Slippery Rock.
Joining Elliott — as always — are drummer Kevin Shea, trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. These are cats who are well seasoned and well ingrained into the New York downtown scene, especially Irabagon, who seems to be everywhere. The stated theme for this album really does nothing to alter the basic plan of attack for the band, which is to, well, attack. Melodies start out simple but wind up getting abstracted all to hell. Irabagon and Evans are constantly clashing, recognizing that most of the burden to create the sparks falls of them. Shea often steps outside and carpet bombs the beat because Moppa is in firm command of the pulse. All of these guys are in involved in plenty of other projects in which they can get randy, but MOPDTK is their primary vehicle for getting their ya-ya’s out. We’re talking all the way out.
“Hearts Content” sets the tone for the whole album: grooves are set up, blown up, and then the brakes are applied and they move on to another groove. That doesn’t mean they don’t ever revisit the original theme, but most of the time, they’re restating it in a different way. “Paul’s Journey to Opp” works in that way, too. “Sayre” has a catchy melody that gets partly obscured by sheer rowdiness, as both horn performers are battling each other and move between soloing separately and in tandem so frequently it’s a wonder they never lose their way in a song. They get so overheated on “Jersey Shore,” they’re barely able to stay on key. They actually fashioned a waltz for “Can’t Tell Shipp From Shohola” but it’s about as rambunctious as waltzes go. “President Polk” is striking in that both Evans and Irabagon are up on a much higher register than elsewhere, almost certainly because Irabagon is playing soprano sax while Evans is using a piccolo trumpet. Two of the songs in the middle “Yo, Yeo, Yough”, and the faux-reggae groover “Dexter, Wayne and Mobley” are relatively “straight” for the simple reason that the tempo stays on course, but that doesn’t mean that anything else has to.
Slippery Rock won’t do anything to mollify MOPDTK’s critics; it’s over-the-top, it rarely swings and the boys don’t on the surface seem to take themselves too seriously. That, I think, misses the point. Zany fun isn’t supposed to be anathema to jazz, and it’s not like jazz couldn’t use a sharp kick in the ass, anyway. They do the ass kicking with smiles on their faces and the cheer can be infectious. And if music can make you grin, then it has succeeded.
Slippery Rock is unleashed on January 22, by Elliott’s Hot Cup Records.