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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The World’s Funniest Jazz Band Explore Weird Pennsylvania

Since their beginning in the early zeros, Mostly Other People Do the Killing have built a wild and erudite career as the Spinal Tap of jazz. Their satire ranges from over-the-top cartoonishness, to layers and layers of inside jokes, to mimicry that sometimes so closely resembles the style they’re spoofing that it’s hard to distinguish it from the source material. And these guys go deep. Over the years they’ve flipped the bird to Count Basie, Ornette Coleman, and 80s fusion jazz in general, sometimes lovingly, sometimes with a snarky sneer.

They started out as a horn band, took a hiatus after multi-reedman Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans became occupied with, um, more serious projects and have lately reemerged as a piano trio. How does their latest album, Disasters Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – stack up against the rest of their magnificently twisted oeuvre? This spoof of lounge jazz and occasionally other genres is sick, cruel and as ridiculously funny as anything else the band have ever recorded. The sickest thing about it is that a lot of musicians play music that sounds exactly like this sometimes, and think it’s good.

As usual, all the songs on the album relate to a location in bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott’s native Pennsylvania. This time, he expands the concept to disasters, most of them manmade. The group go straight for the ultimate Pennsylvania nightmare with the opening number, Three Mile Island. How lethal is it? Hardly. The liner notes, by longtime MOPDTK chronicler “Leonardo Featherweight” claim that it depicts a nuclear power plant meltdown in reverse, and that’s plausible, as the band coalesce from dissociative bubbles (both drummer Kevin Shea and pianist Ron Stabinsky muck around on Nord Electro here) to hints of blues and eventually a jaunty swing blues tune.

The second number, Exeter is where the howls really begin, Shea reprising his usual suspect role as a Jones more Spike than Elvin. This snide lounge jazz parody may or may not reflect the corporate cynicism of the owners of the Knox Mine, who in 1959 attempted to save a few bucks and drill a little too close to the Susquehanna riverbed. The resulting flood turned not only the mine but the area around it into an aquifer and effectively destroyed the local coal mining economy.

Marcus Hook, on the Delaware River, has been the site of more than one fiery collision involving an oil tanker. The band commemorate one or more of them via a succession of loungey cliches in what more pretentious types would call an electroacoustic performance.

Stabinsky gets to revisit his hometown of Wilkes-Barre in what is supposedly a tale of the 1972 flooding there in the wake of Hurricane Agnes, but seems more of a snotty bag of cheap fallback piano riffs. Then the band make a diptych out of Centralia (home to the eternal flame, or at least eternal smolder) and Johnstown (that one everybody knows, right?). In the first part, Elton John seems to be a target, maybe Vince Guaraldi too. The second is a fool’s paradise of a jazz waltz.

Elliott breaks out his bow for a long overdue spoof of Halloween jazz (and maybe Thelonious Monk) in Boyertown, where a horrific theatre fire claimed over a hundred lives in 1908. Dimock, best known as the town where tap water would burst into flames as a result of fracking run amok, is immortalized with an endless series of cheesy quotes run amok – the false ending is priceless. These merry pranksters wind up the record with an “alternate take” of Wilkes-Barre which is too venomously good to give away. Somewhere there’s a cynical music blogger who’s going to pick this as the best jazz album of the year.

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March 22, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moppa Elliott Brings His Twisted, Hilarious Parodies to Gowanus

Is Moppa Elliott this era’s Frank Zappa? Elliott is funnier, and his jokes are musical rather than lyrical, but there are similarities. Each began his career playing parodies – Zappa with the Mothers of Invention and Elliott with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their bodies of work are distinguished by an equally broad and spot-on sense of humor, with a cruel streak. With Mostly Other People Do the Killing – the world’s funniest jazz group – seemingly in mothballs at the moment, Elliott has gone out and made a lavish triple album with three separate, closely related ensembles. The world’s funniest jazz bassist is playing a tripleheader, with sets by each of them tomorrow, Feb 15 at Shapeshifter Lab starting at 7 PM with the jazz octet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, following at 8 with quasi-soul band Acceleration Due to Gravity and then at 9 with instrumental 80s rock act Unspeakable Garbage. Cover is $10.

Where MOPDtK savaged Ornette Coleman imitators, fusion jazz and hot 20s swing, among many other styles, the new record Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band gives the bozack to New Orleans shuffles, Kansas City swing and retro 60s soul music, and attempts to do the same to 80s rock. It hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, although there are three tracks up at Soundcloud. Throughout the record, Elliott is more chill than ever, letting his twisted compositions speak for themselves.

It’s redemptive to hear how deliciously Elliott and the “dance band” mock the hordes of white kids aping 60s funk and soul music. This sounds like the Dap-Kings on a cruel overdose of liquid acid, trying desperately to hold it together. Without giving away all the jokes, let’s say that drummer Mike Pride’s rhythm is a persistent punchline. And yet, as relentless as the satire here is, there are genuinely – dare we say – beautiful moments here, notably guitarist Ava Mendoza’s savage roar and tuneful erudition: she really knows her source material.

The horns – trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Dave Taylor, saxophonists Matt Nelson and Bryan Murray – squall when they’re not getting completely self-indulgent, Mendoza serving as good cop. Guitarist Kyle Saulnier and pianist George Burton fall somewhere in the middle along with Elliott. As an imitation of an imitation, several generations removed from James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Louis Jordan, this is hilarious stuff. The arguably most vicious payoff of all is when they swing that unctuous King Crimson tune by the tail until it breaks: it’s about time somebody did that.

Advancing on a Wild Pitch – with trombonist Sam Kulik, baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman – is the jazz group here, akin to a less ridiculous MOPDtK. As with that band, quotes and rhythmic japes factor heavily into the sarcasm, but you have to listen more closely than Elliott’s music usually demands to pick up on the snarky pokes. This is also his chance to remind the world that if he really wanted to write slightly above-average, derivative postbop jazz without much in the way of humor to score a record deal, he could do it in his sleep. But this is so much more fun!

Again, without giving away any punchlines, the length of the pieces and also the solos weighs in heavily. Oh baby, do they ever. They savage second-line shuffles, the Basie band, early Ellington, 30s swing and doofy gospel-inspired balladry, among other things. If you really want a laugh and can only listen to one tune here, try St. Marys: the most irresistible bit is about midway through. Even so, there are long, unselfconsciously engaging solos by Fox and Kulik in the two final numbers, Ship and Slab, which don’t seem like parodies at all. If Elliott has a dozen more of these kicking around, he could blend right in at Jazz at Lincoln Center – and maybe sneak in some of the really fun stuff too.

Unspeakable Garbage’s honking instrumental approach to cheesy 80s radio rock is too close to its endless litany of sources to really count as parody. With blaring guitar, a leaden beat and trebly synth, they devise mashups from a list including but not limited to Huey Lewis, Van Halen, Pat Benatar and Grover Washington Jr. This predictable shtick gets old fast: Spinal Tap it’s not. You’d do better with Murray and his band Bryan & the Haggards, who have put out three surprisingly amusing albums of instrumental Merle Haggard covers.

February 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mostly Other People Do the Killing Rip Decades of Hot Jazz to Shreds

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest release on their Hot Cup label, Red Hot, is the great lost Spike Jones instrumental album. It’s the New York band’s most cartoonish, and also most accessible album: punk jazz doesn’t get any better, or more caustically funny than this. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott insists that this is the best thing the group has ever done, and he’s right. Over the past few years, MOPDtK have parodied everything from post-Ornette sounds to 70s and 80s elevator jazz. But with 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give this genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. This is one sick record. This time out, the core of the band, including Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans is bolstered by bass trombone legend David Taylor, pianist Ron Stabinsky and banjo shredder Brandon Seabrook.

Underneath the incessant jokes, there’s a method to the madness. They bedevil each other with the uneven meters common in hot jazz.  Seabrook adds an ever-present mosquito buzz as he tremolo-picks his strings, ad nauseum: even if you love the banjo, you will get sick of hearing from him. That’s part of the plan. Taylor, the first bass trombonist to ever play a solo show at Carnegie Hall, is in his eighth decade and has never tired of taking on a challenge, and fits in perfectly: he’s one of the funniest members of the cast.

As usual, most of the song titles refer to Pennsylvania towns. The Shickshinny Shimmy works a vaudevillian swing with droll comedic japes from the banjo and bass trombone,  morphing into a vaguely latin vamp and then back; a simplistic three-chord cliche gets in the way. Zelionople opens with a ridiculously long drum solo and then shuffles along with repeated breaks for tomfoolery every time the bass and drums drop out, a trope that repeats throughout the album with surprisingly interesting results. Taylor’s silly downsliding hands off to Evans, who disappears with a clam in his throat, then reappears as Irabagon shadows him with his tongue stuck out.

The title track,  a tongue-in-cheek march, goes doublespeed a la Spike Jones, Irabagon having a field day, mealymouthed and psyched to halfheartedly spoof dixieland along with the rest of the band. King of Prussia has a priceless ADD piano intro and solo from Stabinsky, spitball-in-waiting suspense from Seabrook and dorky acents from Evans. Turkey Foot Corner has Elliott imitating a tabla and introducing a barnyard scenario, Taylor aptly quoting a familar Wizard of Oz lick, Evans’ not-quite-there solo over Seabrook’s omnipresent deadpan woodpecker banjo.

Seabrook, Power, Plant explores the Romany influence on hot jazz, working its way down to a Nino Rota-on-acid bolero. Orange Is the Name of the Town jams out a faux sentimental waltz with weepy muted trumpet accents and a long interlude that Stabinsky slowly and hilariously unravels, lefthand and righthand oblivious to each other.

There are two more tracks. Gum Stump makes fun of blues cliches, Shea’s refusal to stay on track one of the album’s best jokes, Seabrook and Taylor muttering their disapproval. The last track, a hi-de-ho Cab Calloway shuffle, is a mess by the time they hit the second turnaround, Irabagon mealymouthing his first solo and practically regurgitating his second one, going out on a deadpan serious note. Don’t count on that next time around. The album comes complete with liner notes by “Leonardo Featheweight,” this time taking the story of a smoldering Pennsylvania ghost town to its logical conclusion.

August 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment