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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  JAZZMATAZZ: Look back in laughter

JAZZMATAZZ: Look back in laughter

Standing hero worship on its head, iconoclastic band Mostly Other People Do the Killing opens new sides to celebrated jazz through fun, humor and imagination

Playing at break-neck speed, Mostly Other People Do the Killing have developed a flair for shattering musical myths through backhanded complimentsPremium
Playing at break-neck speed, Mostly Other People Do the Killing have developed a flair for shattering musical myths through backhanded compliments

In its century of becoming, jazz has become formidable; justifiably perhaps with great creativity, but sometimes it all seems oppressively heavy. Studied irreverence, which is what Mostly Other People Do the Killing (yes, that’s the name of the band) brings to the proscenium, is then the perfect antidote to so much seriousness. After all, there’s nothing like a snigger to lighten up the mood. Done just right, this band of fiercely free spirits has in the past few years outraged purists but delighted many others with their eclectic brand of music making.

MOPDTK banded together in 2003 with bassist Moppa Elliot leading a frontline of trumpeter Peter Evans, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea. The quartet came out with their eponymous debut album the next year but truly hit their groove in Shamokin!!! (2007), the first in a series of albums in which they turned celebrated music of earlier eras inside out, had great fun themselves and caused a welcome uproar that is still heard every time they release a new one.

The band’s love of hard bop and free jazz of the sixties is clear, but with a twist. The album cover of Shamokin!!! is an imitation of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ classic Blue Note LP A Night in Tunisia (1961) that showcased Blakey’s group at the height of its powers to push the frontiers of hard bop. MOPDTK in its album offers a roller coaster ride that humorously touches upon the musical cues of the times but takes them forward on the road that jazz has since travelled.

If Shamokin!!! set the tone for MOPDTK, its next album, This Is Our Moosic (2008), a re-interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s landmark This Is Our Music (1961), saw the band outdoing themselves in frenetic improvisation inspired by the free jazz practised by the likes of Coleman, Don Cherry and Rashaan Roland Kirk that’s at once dared to be different while sticking to its musical roots. The demented drumming of Shea, the tunefulness of Evans and the unrestrained horn play by Irabagon, all held together by the slapping of the bass by Elliot, loudly announced the arrival of a super group of new jazz masters.

With This Is Our Moosic, MOPDTK was well on its way to gather a cult following through their virtuoso performances that thumbed a nose to the hidebound purism that many jazz musicians had fallen into by their worshipful attitude towards what had gone before. Looking back with laughter, MOPDTK brought a sorely needed gust of sarcasm through free improvisation, imitating, but not quite, the living tradition of jazz. And if more proof was needed, Elliot and company released two albums in 2010, Forty Fort and The Coimbra Concert, which grooved to the increasing seamless interplay between the members to produce the canniest improvisations that roiled and enthralled listeners. To top it all, the jacket of The Coimbra Concert was a spoof of Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, a musician not particularly known for his sense of humor.

Peppered with numbers in their album that take their names from places in Pennsylvania, the home state of Elliot, MOPDTK continued their rumbustious journey through musical eras, training their sights next on smooth jazz, that favorite bugbear of purists made popular by the likes of Grover Washington Jr., with Slippery Rock! (2013). Sounding nothing like the soulful, bluesy tunes of smooth jazz, the album still managed to use similar tropes to intricate and mind-bending romps that blared the band’s avant-garde predilections to quite an entertaining effect.

If turning musical ideas inside out was not enough, MOPDTK, no stranger to controversies, flummoxed fans with their latest offering, Blue (2014), a note by note reconstruction of Mile Davies’ masterly Kind of Blue, perhaps the most well-known jazz album of all time. “When you’re in school your teachers tell you to pace yourself and don’t play everything you know all at once, (that) you should have continuity and you should develop your themes," Elliot once told the Jazz Times magazine. “We try as consciously as possible to do exactly the opposite—play everything we know as fast as we can and then play it again."

If that were the case, MOPDTK in Blue did the opposite to their usual opposite, by reproducing, to the last throat clearing, the timeless notes of the album that has sold in the millions. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the Kind of Blue sextet, told the Wall Street Journal, “But, hey, classical has been doing this for centuries—playing the notes someone else wrote. If these guys took the time to do this, the music must mean something to them." Cobb is entirely in the right, maybe just not in the way MOPDTK meant it.

Some jazz people, musicians and critics alike, take themselves entirely too seriously. It’s quite a lark if some others take them down so inventively. Laughter is a relief, even if it’s peculiar. “Part of the fun of this band is throwing all these references at each other that we know we’re all going to pick up on. John starts playing like Cannonball Adderley and Kevin starts playing like Elvin Jones and then it all changes in a second and we’re playing a punk-rock tune. Smearing all that stuff together creates fun music," Elliot told Jazz Times. “How come when you go and see jazz musicians they’re all on stage frowning? It’s like, ‘This is serious music.’ Well, that’s our goal in two words—fun music."

Click here for the playlist.

Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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Published: 07 Jan 2015, 01:49 PM IST
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