January/February 2008

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Swing the Funny

We get the irreverent label thrown at us a lot,” says bassist Moppa Elliott. “It’s not so much irreverence as anti-hero-worship. There’s this real hero-worship problem in jazz.”

Elliott, 29, is the leader of Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDTK), a quartet with trumpeter Peter Evans, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea that takes its name from a Leon Theremin quote about why Stalin wasn’t really such a bad guy.

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Natural Born Killers: (L-R) Peter Evans, Kevin Shea, Jon Iragagon and Moppa Elliott

Billing itself as a “terrorist bebop über-jass band,” MOPDTK has just released its second album, Shamokin!!! Complete with packaging that apes the classic Art Blakey Night in Tunisia album and liner notes credited to “Leonard Featherweight,” it is a smart, satiric, in-and-out-of-the-pocket, deliberately obnoxious and deliciously fun collection of snide originals and deconstructed standards.

The band’s basic strategy is to prop up classic Blue Note-era hard bop conventions and then tear them apart with Oedipal fury.

“I write these songs that are all very intentionally cliché,” says Elliott, “very recognizable ’50s and ’60s Blue Note references.” For example, the tune “Dunkelbergers” is described in the wry liner notes as “a string of minor-key clichés modeled after countless attempted sambas and bossa novas of the ’60s.”

“I was sitting around and put on the Blue Note box set of Tina Brooks’ recordings,” explained Elliott. “Then I put on a Dexter Gordon album. Over the course of that I heard four C-minor bossas with the opening chord progression of C-minor, D-flat major. I was like, ‘I’m gonna write that tune.’”

Within the performances, the sense of play is even more extreme. Sabotage and “non-cohesive collage” are the musicians’ agreed-upon tools, setting up big moments and then letting them fail spectacularly, and relentlessly cycling through genres and styles. On a typical tune Evans might “try to sound like Bix Beiderbecke, then Lester Bowie, then Dave Douglas, then Nate Wooley.”

“When you’re in school your teachers tell you to pace yourself and don’t play everything you know all at once, [that] you should have continuity and you should develop your themes. We try as consciously as possible to do exactly the opposite—play everything we know as fast as we can and then play it again.”

What saves Shamokin!!! from being just satire is how good it is. The band’s sound is a tart extension of the Ornette/Masada/Sex Mob tradition, the tunes are genuinely catchy, and the solos are sharp and exciting. Among the album’s highlights are ludicrous takes on overly familiar standards like “Lover” and “Night in Tunisia.” Pulling the tunes apart like taffy—Shea quoting Tone-Loc and U2, Evans grinding through a cadenza like electric shears through sheet metal, Irabagon mercilessly drifting in and out of tune on a Johnny Hodges impersonation—they have rubbed some people the wrong way.

“People have actually said, ‘How could you do something so offensive? You can’t do that,’” says Elliott. “The only people who have any negative thing to say about the group are musicians, people who have invested so much of their blood, sweat and tears in this idealistic hero-worship-based jazz tradition that to see us start to play a song and then fall down laughing and then start up again with a boogaloo—it twists something in their core.”

In a nation besotted with irony and satire and celebrity bashing, why is irreverence in jazz still so rare?

“It has a lot to do with Wynton Marsalis’ agenda and the whole ‘African-American art form that is neglected,’” says Evans. “It’s like we need to show everybody that we respect this music so much to convince everybody that they should respect it too. Because they don’t.”

And for Elliott, a graduate of Oberlin and a string of master classes—most of which only seemed to urge him to play more like old jazz records—the music is also a comment on what it is to be a product of the jazz education machine in an age of eclecticism and nostalgia.

“People like us come out of these conservatories where you have classes where it’s like, ‘Now you will learn all of the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers book and you will learn to play like them. And then next semester you will learn to play like this group.’ There’s a robot on YouTube that plays Coltrane solos. Are we supposed to be that?”

“Part of the fun of this band is throwing all these references at each other that we know we’re all going to pick up on. John starts playing like Cannonball Adderley and Kevin starts playing like Elvin Jones and then it all changes in a second and we’re playing a punk-rock tune. Smearing all that stuff together creates fun music.

“How come when you go and see jazz musicians they’re all on stage frowning? It’s like, ‘This is serious music.’ Well, that’s our goal in two words—fun music.”

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