Although they perform in business suits, Mostly Other People Do the Killing are a subversive ensemble, upending expectations with an impish attitude. Led by bassist and composer Moppa Elliott, MOPDtK is a 19-year old band that includes Ron Stabinsky, piano and Kevin Shea, drums. They entertained 40 people on Saturday, February 19 at Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares began the second half of their 10th season.
The band, which began in 2003 with trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon alongside Shea and Elliott, takes the whole of jazz history, puts it through a blender and spits out a mélange. Reminiscent of John Zorn’s jump-cut collages, these modernists add humor and mischievousness while pin-balling from style to style. Despite the change in personnel and instrumentation in 2017, MOPDtK has not deviated from their method. In fact, with Stabinsky and Shea playing Nord electronic keyboard and Nord drum synthesizer, they have added a space-age vaudeville vibe to the proceedings. Stabinsky told me they call it the “revenge of the Nords”.
But their tongue-in-cheek character did not distract from the musicality and inventiveness of the trio. Playing pieces from their brand-new recording, Disasters, Vol. 1, they moved from open, atonal sections to deep swing, from a shmaltzy dirge to classical concision, all within minutes. The effect could make you dizzy, and there were times I wished they would have settled into a groove for longer than they did, but then we’d be listening to a different band. The new record, on Elliott’s own Hot Cup Records, details various disasters that have befallen Pennsylvanian cities. Disasters, Vol. 1, continues Elliott’s tradition of naming all his tunes after places in the Keystone State. (He was born in Scranton.) On Saturday, he gave us thumbnail histories of those tragedies, which ranged from floods and fires to mine and nuclear accidents. “Centralia”, for instance, which is now largely a ghost-town, has had an active underground coal mine fire burning since 1962. Elliott’s tune, a feature for the supremely talented Ron Stabinsky, had a barrelhouse early rock feel.
The music was frenetic at times, with a mad-cap quality achieved by speeding up and slowing down the tempo, or having one of the musicians playing at cross-purpose. Often that person was Shea, a masterfully busy drummer who played with precision and a rock mentality. While piano and bass were playing music right out of a top-hat waving, 1930s musical, the drums were bashing away at twice the tempo and twice the volume. Other times Stabinsky would seem to be soloing on a different tune, only to finally tip-toe towards the established groove. The electronics greatly expanded their sound palate, creating moments of cartoon comedy or otherworldly universes.
Elliott played the straight man, often maintaining the pulse and dictating the changes in direction. The bassist, now in his mid-40s, presents as a conventional, law-abiding musician. But there is something audacious in his unceremonious mash-up of jazz history. In 2014 he created a firestorm of controversy when MOPDtK released, Blue, recreating Miles Davis’ iconic Kind of Blue with a level of faithfulness that fooled experts and lay listeners alike. The liner notes include a reprint of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, where the fictitious Menard immerses himself so thoroughly in Cervantes’ work as to be able to actually “re-create” it, line for line. The band takes its name from a quote from the inventor Leon Theremin, who after spending years in a Soviet gulag, excused Stalin’s behavior, saying “mostly other people did the killing”. Elliott’s wry humor and irreverent attitude is further reflected in early MOPDtK album covers that parody important records like Ornette Coleman’s This is Our Music and Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon. It’s all part of his rebellious, punk-inspired impulse to “kill yr idols”.
But it’s clear that his post-modern sensibilities are rooted in his love and mastery of the jazz tradition. Throughout the 70-minute set, we heard snippets of ragtime, swing, rock, “lounge”, bop and the Afro-future. The band’s total command of so many jazz dialects can only come from musicians who have studied seriously, practiced diligently and revere the tradition. Elliott told me he is about 30 discs shy of owning all 300 records featuring veteran bassist Sam Jones.