Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Mauch Chunk [TrackList follows] – Hot Cup 153, 45:54 [10/27/15] ****:

(Jon Irabagon – alto saxophone; Ron Stabinsky – piano; Moppa Elliott – bass, producer; Kevin Shea – drums)

There is a lingering sense of returning to roots on the 45-minute Mauch Chunk, the latest outing by modern jazz quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing (or MOPDTK). [Here’s their previous one.] The group’s previous album, Blue, concentrated on the music and style of another jazz performer, Miles Davis: Blue, in fact, recreated Davis’ iconic 1959 LP, A Kind of Blue. But on Mauch Chunk, MOPDTK has swung back to the band’s own stance and their original compositions. After experimenting with someone else’s music, it is refreshing to hear MOPDTK revisit the band’s muse and the creative post-bop material which has garnered fans and positive criticism. However, some things have changed. MOPDTK has pared down to a four piece with the loss of trumpeter Peter Evans, who co-founded MOPDTK in 2003. He’ll be missed, but the remaining members—alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon; pianist Ron Stabinsky (who joined in time for 2013’s Red Hot); drummer Kevin Shea; and most importantly, bassist/producer (and chief composer) Moppa Elliott—are a formidable band.

Elliott’s vision permeates this album, as it often has on other releases. He penned the seven originals, acts as producer, and the CD’s conceptual theme is probably his idea as well. Like preceding MOPDTK projects, Mauch Chunk is riddled with allusions to Pennsylvania geography and history. As the liner notes state (once again credited to the fictive nom de plume Leonardo Featherweight), the town of Mauch Chunk (a name derived from the term Mawsch Unk or Bear Place, hence the brown bear visual motif on the digipak artwork) is a former center of commerce, transportation and tourism in eastern Pennsylvania. The liner notes also denote how and why the municipality was renamed Jim Thorpe (after the famous Native American athlete). Yes, that’s a true story. Mirroring the group’s respect for jazz history, many tunes are dedicated to either a jazz artist or someone who has inspired jazz musicians. Things kick off with strength and swing on the opener, “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe,” which is dedicated to Henry Threadgill. The title evidently is meant as a nod to Threadgill’s “Spotted Dick Is Pudding,” but the fast-moving track never endeavors to echo Threadgill. “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe” has a blues-bred groove, an infectious melodic line, and later in the piece, Irabagon goes wild on his careening sax.

MOPDTK head south of the border on the bossa nova-inclined “West Bolivar.” While the title suggests an Argentinian source, West Bolivar is a small Pennsylvania hamlet. Aptly, this slightly askew South American jazz track is dedicated to Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso. That’s followed by another Latin jazz number, “Obelisk,” for bassist Dave Holland. While Holland isn’t known strictly as a Latin jazz performer, he’s certainly done some fine recordings in that vein. “Obelisk” is pure energy, with a danceable rhythm, and is one of MOPDTK’s most fun tunes on this or any other MOPDTK release. Refrains and solos from Stabinsky and Irabagon are amazing to listen to.

MOPDTK slows to a bluesy, late-night flow on the undulating ballad, “Niagra,” a beautiful conception offered as a memorial for free jazz horn player Will Connell, who passed away unexpectedly in late 2014. The NYC-based Connell was not well recognized, but his music affected those who did listen. “Niagra” has a commemorative undertow, but also a shade of sadness. An upbeat declaration distills through “Herminie,” yet another cut which honors someone who died too early. The tune’s connection to pianist Sonny Clark is clear: Clark was born in Herminie, Pennsylvania. The late pianist was celebrated for his hard bop work, and it wouldn’t be difficult to consider Clark doing this kind of swinging material. “Herminie” is a positive and optimistic tribute which exalts Clark’s leaping and loping contributions to jazz.

The record’s showpiece comes near the end, the potent 12-minute “Townville,” which is divided in several sections which display MOPDTK’s sometimes wild  and sometimes exhilarating cavorting through three distinctive themes, with unrestricted breaks in between. There are instances which border on free jazz (Stabinsky channels McCoy Tyner around the eight-minute mark, and Irabagon follows suit with a Coltrane-esque sax mosaic). MOPDTK concludes with the convincing, cheerful closer “Mehoopany,” another high spot among many. “Mehoopany” has a playful backroom character, with just a touch of mild dissonance. Shea’s percussive percolation maintains an unflappable beat which never loses hipness. Careful inspection of these seven tracks will reveal allusions to earlier MOPDTK ventures, other musicians’ compositions, and to the aforementioned artists listed above, which adds layers of enjoyment to this multi-tiered music.

TrackList: Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe; West Bolivar; Obelisk; Niagra; Herminie; Townville; Mehoopany.

—Doug Simpson