Mostly Other People do the Killing – Slippery Rock! – Hot Cup 123, 52:34 ****:
(Peter Evans – trumpet, piccolo trumpet, slide trumpet; Jon Irabagon – tenor, alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones; Moppa Elliott – bass, producer; Kevin Shea – drums, percussion)
Some folks get confused by the post-bop, avant-garde quartet Mostly Other People do the Killing. There is the unusual name, supposedly inspired by inventor Léon Theremin, who was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, and later absolved Stalin on the grounds that other people killed undesirables in the USSR, a quotation which may or may not be genuine (but makes for good promotional copy). Mostly Other People do the Killing are also infamous for parodying jazz iconography. Previous album covers and liner notes have adapted Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers; Ornette Coleman; critic Leonard Feather (an ongoing in-joke is notes written by fictitious scribe Leonardo Featherweight); Roy Haynes (see 2010’s Forty Fort); and Keith Jarrett. On the band’s fifth outing, Slippery Rock!, the textual and visual punning focuses on the smooth/pop jazz era, with Day-Glo suits on the cover and notes which purport that this time around, Mostly Other People do the Killing are motivated to evoke the likes of Fattburger, the Rippingtons, Washington Grover, Jr., Bob James and others. One spin through the 52-minute, nine-track album will dispel that notion.
Trumpeter Peter Evans, multi-sax player Jon Irabagon, bassist Moppa Elliott (who wrote all of the material) and drummer Kevin Shea continue to do two things on Slippery Rock!: titles again nod to Pennsylvania, and the foursome again utilize Coleman as an evident inspiration, not copying the iconoclast but actively creating iconoclastic music with an extroverted sound, frenetic and sometimes fierce improvisations, and varied musical references which listeners might pick up. Typically, Evans and Irabagon’s input is central to the tunes’ unrestrained subversion.
That is proven right from the get-go, on the hard-swinging “Hearts Content.” There is a gainful (and initially even funky) bass/drums backbeat, via a rhythm-only introduction, which generates an inventive foundation for the twinned horns. Irabagon is the first to take the high ground, and when the track slows down for a bit, Evans and Irabagon trade and combine lines. Before the tussled cut is over, Irabagon and Evans show why they are two of the best tandem horns in modern-day jazz. The second number, the wittily titled “Can’t Tell Shipp from Shohola,” hints at pianist Matthew Shipp. While there may not be any direct Shipp citations, the piece echoes Shipp’s use of multi-tinted coloring and harmonic digression. As the rhythm duo maintains an unabashed or unfettered stance, Evans includes slurred trumpet which provides a sonic shift, and later elaborates during a forceful solo, while Irabagon weaves alongside him with a complementary saxophone which alternates from screeches to whispers, as well as other twists and turns. Three more prominent jazz artists are alluded to on “Dexter, Wayne and Mobley.” Of course, that would be Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Hank Mobley (geographers may notice Dexter and Wayne are also Pennsylvania towns). This mostly relaxed cut has some rhythm and blues insinuations, in part from Shea’s ticking beat and partially from Irabagon’s sax tone, which conveys the middle ground Mobley often took, halfway between John Coltrane’s aggressive deportment and Lester Young’s softer coolness.
Some commentators have suggested Mostly Other People do the Killing are frequently too free-form and provocative. But these are serious musicians who just happen to be uninhibited. That synchronized balance between unreserved spontaneity and carefully expressed adventure is highlighted during “President Polk,” which purportedly is to some extent prompted by R&B hit makers such as Prince and R. Kelly, although that aspect may only be represented by the use of the horns’ higher registers, which connote a magnified emotionality. Here, Evans’ piccolo trumpet is set against Irabagon’s sopranino saxophone, an arrangement which crafts an appealing yet fulsome interplay, and there are moments when straightforward jazz tradition is at the forefront. Some urban jazz sentiment also rises on the record-closing and lengthy “Is Granny Spry?” (it goes without saying Spry is also a small Pennsyvania burg). “Is Granny Spry?” is both unorthodox and sleek, with a sensuous, lead-in groove, and flowing trumpet and sax, which although not glossy, are nevertheless melodic and tuneful. From there, the number swells until it nearly explodes with ideas. Shea incorporates a plethora of rhythmic parts which display his prodigious technique, Elliott furnishes a tantalizing bass groove, while the trumpet and sax swing, seethe, collide, brashly get carried away, and dominate listeners’ attention. There is also an undeniable groove during the high-spirited “Yo, Yea, Yough,” which has a boppish élan. In keeping with their bows to jazz history and a propensity for humor, the bandmembers star in a film-noirish video which interested parties might find to be a short cinematic treat.
TrackList: Hearts Content; Can’t Tell Shipp from Shohola; Sayre; President Polk; Yo, Yea, Yough; Dexter, Wayne and Mobley; Jersey Shore; Paul’s Journey to Opp; Is Granny Spry?