Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Setting the Record Straight

Troy Collins By

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Mostly Other People Do the Killing is frequently typecast as one of today's most humorously irreverent young jazz groups, based in no small part on their provocative name, which was inspired by a quote attributed to inventor Leon Theremin—a survivor of the Soviet gulag who exonerated Stalin because "mostly other people did the killing." Bassist and founder Moppa Elliott (born Matthew Thomas Elliott) has repeatedly insisted in interviews that the band isn't actually intended to be irreverent however, as much as it is anti-hero worship.

The quartet's rebellious spirit and wry sensibility is deeply rooted and readily apparent, well beyond its name. Released exclusively on Elliott's Hot Cup Records imprint, the band's four previous studio recordings offer a maniacally post-modern take on the tradition, willfully embracing the DIY punk aesthetic to "kill yr idols." Reinforcing this attitude, its album covers have repeatedly parodied iconic jazz sessions from the past: 2007's Shamokin!!! recasts the bold typeface design of drummer Art Blakey's A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note, 1960); 2008's This Is Our Moosic restages the group portrait of saxophonist Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1960); and 2010's Forty Fort sends up the pastoral scenery of drummer Roy Haynes' Out of the Afternoon (Impulse!, 1962); while its sole live release for Clean Feed Records, 2011's The Coimbra Concert, emulates the stark chiaroscuro of pianist Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert (ECM, 1975).

Despite the high-brow tomfoolery, the group boasts a truly phenomenal cast, whose quicksilver interplay has been perfected by years spent together on the road. Trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, 2008 winner of the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, make a wickedly capricious frontline, while Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea form an elastically resilient rhythm section. Evans' staggering instrumental virtuosity and affinity for experimental extended techniques is paralleled by Irabagon's chameleonic delivery; together they seamlessly juxtapose circular breathing motifs, multiphonic outbursts and vocalized textures with contrapuntal harmonies, minimalist refrains and familiar quotes, referencing the entire jazz continuum all at once. Playing both in and out of time, Elliott and Shea further amplify this maximalist aesthetic, with the leader's robust bass lines underscoring Shea's ramshackle trap set deconstructions at every turn. Heading into previously uncharted territory, Slippery Rock! is the self-described "terrorist bebop" band's fifth studio recording.

Shamokin!!! This Is Our Moosic Forty Fort The Coimbra Concert

All About Jazz: Almost all of Mostly Other People Do the Killing's (MOPDtK) album covers (other than its self-titled 2004 debut) mimic the appearance a classic jazz title, yet the newest release, Slippery Rock!, does not, instead parodying a tacky, fluorescent-colored 1980s vinyl record jacket. Why the change?

Moppa Elliott: Well, there was no specific album I wanted to parody for this one, so we did a parody of an entire era. The idea was in part inspired by the colored suits that graphic designer Nathan Kuruna found at Target...

AAJ: Although Slippery Rock! is purportedly inspired by "smooth jazz," it sounds as strong and uncompromising as the rest of the group's oeuvre. When interviewed by Kurt Gottschalk in the spring 2011 issue of Signal To Noise, there was mention that these new pieces were first premiered live using keyboards and electric bass. Can you elaborate on how the tunes changed from inception to recording?

ME: I originally thought that the keyboards and electric bass idea would lead to some new musical material for us, but instead it was a barrier. Peter felt most strongly about this, but after we talked about it for a while, I came around and agreed that the interaction between the four of us can continue to grow and develop without changing instruments or having Jon and Peter play keyboards. I wrote the original versions of most of the tunes on Slippery Rock! with that instrumentation in mind, then rewrote them for the original instrumentation. I found that very little changed when I took out the keyboard parts and that the stronger tunes worked in both contexts. There were a few that I wound up cutting since they didn't work without the keyboards or I just wound up not liking them.

AAJ: Most of the new numbers are aesthetically consistent with previous efforts, yet there are definitely a few that break from convention. The slinky ballad "President Polk" unfolds with piccolo trumpet and sopranino saxophone soaring high over a sinuous groove, emulating (according to the press release) the erotic R&B of artists like Prince and R. Kelly. The conceptual touchstones for that track are fairly obvious, but perhaps you can illuminate some of the album's more obscure references, such as the Chris Botti and Kenny G elements that are supposedly part of the opening cut, "Hearts Content" or the driving melodicism that underscores the tuneful closer "Is Granny Spry"?

ME: I bought about 30 smooth jazz albums and immersed myself in that sound world for a while (that sounds hilarious to say). So the R. Kelly tune is the most obvious, but all the tunes are an attempt to write in the idiom, but without specific references. I listened to a lot of Kenny G, Chris Botti, Dave Koz, Najee, David Sanborn, Grover Washington Jr., etc., and tried to write the kinds of songs they wrote, just like I usually do for '50s and '60s-style jazz on the previous albums. I think that finding the "obscure references" in our music is like an Easter egg hunt for the listener in which the harder you look, the more you'll find. I'm surprised to hear that the last tune has "driving melodicism," but that's cool. I also think that when a composer or musician tries to explain their music by telling a story about what it "means" that it takes away from the music. I could tell any weird story I want right now about what "Is Granny Spry" is about, and some of it might be true, and some of it might provide some insight into "how I compose" but none of it would make the recording sound any different in a fundamental way... it would just be playing with listeners' subjectivity. That was the whole point of naming the songs after towns in Pennsylvania... that way I can completely avoid the subject of what the songs are "about." That might be escapist or pretentious, but I like it. Honestly, does me telling you that "Sayre" was inspired by a lick that Gerald Albright plays tell you more about the music than the fact that I am related to the Sayre family? Either way, the tune sounds the way it sounds and different listeners will hear different things.

Jon Irabagon: I just wanted to add that from my perspective, it's been interesting using the groove/funk/smooth jazz material and reference points as a home base as opposed to the departure material. In the entire history of the band so far, various eras of swing and more traditional jazz have been the starting points, and the members of the band allow (or don't allow) themselves to reference other genres or eras. However, with Moppa's writing on Slippery Rock!, the home base now is the former departure material. It has been both a challenge and insightful into my own playing/improvising/point of view to flip the script.

Peter Evans: As a trumpet player there are a lot fewer reference points for me in the music you mention than for the other guys. There's not too much trumpet in a soloistic context in pop-jazz after the 70's other than the obvious reference points, like Miles Davis' '80s work and subsequent clones of that type of Harmon mute-with-reverb thing. Then there's the more recent stuff like Rick Braun and Chris Botti. But I certainly don't feel I can do much of anything on the trumpet that will immediately "dial in" a reference to erotic R&B the way the rhythm section instruments or the saxophone can. I feel in this newer set of music my role is mainly some sort of running commentary from outside the music-material universe we're dealing with. I'm not really a fan of smooth jazz trumpet other than as an economic and cultural curiosity, so there's not too much of a reason I would reference it. I played a Harmon mute-with-reverb solo on "East Orwell" from This is Our Moosic and told Moppa that's the only solo like that he's going to get from me, ha ha.

AAJ: Considering the band's debt to the all-inclusive, post-modern jazz continuum initiated by such artists as Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus, do you ever worry that the quartet's perceived reliance on humor might overshadow the individual members' merit as innovators, or do you see a parallel with movements/scenes like New Dutch Swing?

ME: I don't think we rely on humor at all. There is certainly levity and humor in our music, but a lot of that is based on the listener's knowledge and perspective. I don't think a listener completely unaware of jazz and improvised music (i.e., a Justin Bieber fan) would find any humor in our music at all. We think certain things are funny, and some people think those same things are funny, and other people don't. I think the music is strong enough and complex enough and interesting enough to be captivating to people on a variety of levels, and hope that no one is simply listening to our music to find "jokes." Juxtaposition can produce humorous effects (check out Whose Line Is It Anyway), but it can also produce collage and abstraction. The Dutch were and are a big influence on us, but their humor is a bit different. Willem Breuker can be "silly" in a way we rarely are, as can Han Bennink, but we have a different perspective because of our childhoods and education. Not as much '80s pop with them...

JI: As Moppa said, humor (in this case) relies on a person's references and what they might view as "normal" or "acceptable" in a jazz performance. A jazz musician not familiar with the Dutch history would find something that, say, Kevin might do completely weird, unnatural, or "incorrect." But even a layman that has investigated that type of music or performance art or something of the sort could see that some of his actions may be part of a continuum of thought, or an extension of a philosophy behind music or performance. The said jazz musician would simply dismiss this as humoristic, but the person with the wider view on what art can or should be wouldn't find it funny.

PE: I agree with a lot of what the other guys have said—humor, like a lot of things, is just a matter of perspective. I have definitely been frustrated by all the talk of our music being "funny." Humor, or why something is funny, is a notoriously hard thing to talk about so I won't try to define our band's sense of humor or why we think playing "All Things You Are" like comatose West Coast Jazz guys for 15 minutes without variation is compelling to us. It seems like part of what you are referring to is deeply related to our collage approach; the humor for us and for a lot of people has to do with the juxtaposition of unexpected elements.

Juxtaposition isn't necessarily meant to be "funny," and it has broader roots than just comedy. In the case of music by Jaki Byard or the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, it seems to me that part of the idea was to articulate a continuum of Black music—in other words, elements are thrown into collision with one another because they belong together, not because they don't. I feel that way about the Don Pullen/George Adams music as well. And all this stuff had been hugely influential on me and I suspect other guys in the band, although I wouldn't say that's how we always conceive of juxtaposition. We are coming from a much different place. I always cringe a little when the Dutch scene is brought up as if it's a uniform club of musicians all doing the same thing, i.e., a movement. Kevin Whitehead's book is very detailed in its attempts to distinguish the different musicians and their histories. A collage-type of approach is talked about quite a bit though, and I think it's this aspect that leads people to think music by ICP Orchestra or Clusone Trio or the Ab Baars trio is "funny."

What bothers me is how this often equals "insincere" for people. A classic example of juxtaposition or collage playing is My Name Is Albert Ayler (Black Lion, 1963), the Albert Ayler live session with the Danish rhythm section (Ab and a few other musicians cite this as an influence in New Dutch Swing), and it's definitely something to think about. Ok, from a traditional standpoint it "doesn't work"; the rhythm section can't meet Ayler even halfway and there is a profound disconnect. From an "artist intention" point of view, it's a failure. From a more sound-object oriented way of listening, it's great. At least I think so. For me the importance of the advances made in collage based or high-risk juxtaposition improvisation from all the people I mention above is that they have helped reclaim these kinds of structures as things that can be intentionally worked with and deliberately employed to create new music. It requires that everyone is on the same page and understands (as Jon talked about) that ignoring everyone else and playing something totally contradictory to the other three guys actually serves a larger purpose in opening up the large scale structure and sound-world of the music. And yes, it can also be funny.
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