Beethoven is turning over a new leaf, goes an old, bad joke. Now he’s decomposing.
This is what comes to mind when I listen to The Coimbra Concert, the live, nine-song, double album by New York-based avante garde quintet Mostly Other People Do The Killing.
The first track begins with a free-flowing drum solo before offering its blues-based melody for two choruses, and two choruses only. Then everything stops, save for some electronic-sounding trumpet pitches. The set somehow continues from there.
“We started off with a song called ‘Drainlick,’” bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliot explains to the crowd after introducing his bandmates: trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Iragagon, and drummer Kevin Shea. “And then by the end there we were playing a song called ‘Shamokin!!!’ We’re going to play another song now.”
Most of their songs are named for towns in Pennsylvania, Elliot’s home state.
The next tune, “Evans City,” starts with a walking bass and corresponding trumpet and saxophone melody before quickly disintegrating into a song stumbling all over itself. MOPDTK seem incapable, or at least unwilling, when it comes to playing anything straight. Which would be unbelievably annoying if they weren’t so flippin’ good.
“We get the irreverent label thrown at us a lot,” Elliot told JazzTimes a few years back. “It’s not so much irreverence as anti-hero-worship. There’s this real hero-worship problem in jazz.”
“It has a lot to do with Wynton Marsalis’ agenda and the whole ‘African-American art form that is neglected,’” added Elliot. “It’s like we need to show everybody that we respect this music so much to convince everybody that they should respect it, too.”
The band’s moniker comes from a quote by Leon Theremin, who invented the early electronic instrument of the same name, and was put in a Soviet gulag by Stalin. Theremin later exonerated Stalin, saying, “Mostly other people did the killing.”
The band’s name also brings to mind the jazz term “killing it,” used to describe someone who is playing very well, and also the criticism that jazz is dead as a musical art form, because (some say) it has not created anything new or relevant in decades.
MOPDTK place themselves directly in this cultural-historical cauldron, calling themselves a free jazz band playing bebop terrorism, whatever that means. Three of the group’s album covers are nearly identical copies of earlier classics: Shamokin!!! riffs on Art Blakey’s A Night In Tunisia; This Is Our Moosic looks like Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music; and The Coimbra Concert, unfortunately their only live album, cops Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert.
This weekend, Mostly Other People Do The Killing play a Friday afternoon set at the legendary Newport Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take the stage on Saturday. Could be an interesting scene backstage.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)