With traditional acoustic jazz instrumentation but a punk-ish name and attitude, New York City quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing practically demands listeners expect the unexpected. Its eighth release, Mauch Chunk, features longtime members Moppa Elliott, the bassist and leader, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea, plus pianist Ron Stabinsky, a more recent addition. The inspired album concept furthers the dichotomy.
Pennsylvania native Elliott composed all seven tracks, and he continues his tradition of naming tunes after towns in his native state. Or, in the case of the opening “Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe,” former towns. Inspired by Henry Threadgill, the minor-key shuffle encapsulates the quartet’s mantra of “conflict and collaboration,” telling the story, in chaotic instrumental terms, of how a coal mining hub was renamed after a Native American Olympian for the benefit of commerce. Irabagon’s sax, in particular, creates a cacophony, a recurring theme.
Otherwise standard-sounding pieces, like the bossa nova “West Bolivar” or the slow-waltzing “Niagra,” are eventually rendered atonal (or enriched, depending on one’s tastes) by the Irabagon squawk. The outside-the-box saxophonist sounds best on the Latin blues of “Herminie,” dedicated to pianist Sonny Clark. The rhythm section percolates throughout the playful piece as Irabagon spars with Stabinsky, a force on every track. The pianist replaced longtime trumpeter Peter Evans, and his harmony and solos are recurring highlights-even on the Dave Holland dedication “Obelisk,” when it sounds like everyone else is also soloing.
The closing boogaloo “Mehoopany,” for vocalist Frank Fonseca of 1960s doo-wop group the Mandells, is surprisingly restrained, with the exception of Shea’s snare-drum bombs. Elliott provides the steady cadence, and Stabinsky a gorgeous melody, all leading to a rare live performance fade-out. Maybe for Mauch Chunk, it was better to fade away than to burn out.