Moppa Elliott Diversifies His Band(s)


JAZZ BAND/ROCK BAND/DANCE BAND (2 CD set) All compositions by Moppa Elliott except KANYE WEST: Power / Hot Cup Records 909561

ADVANCING ON A WILD PITCH: Oreland. Herminie. St. Mary’s Proctor. Baden. Can’t Tell Shipp From Shohola. Slab / Charles Evans, bar-sax; Sam Kulik, tb; Danny Fox, pno; Moppa Elliott, bs; Christian Coleman, dm / Hot Cup 172

UNSPEAKABLE GARBAGE: Rocks, MD. Punxsutawney. Stone Hill. Minsersville. Drumore. Quarryville. Chrome. Bethlehem. Big Rock / Dr. Rocks, t-sax; Nicky Picks, gtr; Ronny Stabs, pno; The Mop, bs; James Monaghan, dm  Hot Cup 182

ACCELERATION DUE TO GRAVITY: Waddle. Geiger. Sparks. Energy. Power. Bangor / Nate Wooley, tpt; Dave Taylor, tb; Matt Nelson, a-sax/s-sax; Bryan Murray, t-sax/s-sax/bar-sax; Kyle Saulnier, bar-sax; Ava Mendoza, gtr; George Burton, pno; Elliott, bs; Mike Pride, dm / Hot Cup 183

Bassist-composer Matthew “Moppa” Elliot, founder of the somewhat outré jazz band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, has embarked here on a 2-CD set which is separated into three albums. I’m not sure why the booklet lists three separate catalog numbers for the three albums since, as far as I could find online, they are not available separately, but I’ve listed the numbers because they are printed in the notes.

The “jazz band” album, titled Advancing on a Wild Pitch, features a baritone sax, trombone and rhythm section. It starts out with the somewhat funky Oreland, taken at a medium uptempo and featuring good solos all around. According to the promo sheet accompanying this release, “Each composition or arrangement is named after a town in Pennsylvania, as has been the case with Elliott’s titles since 2004,” so there’s a clue to that side of the album(s). As is normally the case with his performances, it’s not so much about dazzling virtuosity as it is about finding musicians who play with energy, excitement, and a good sense of musical construction. The latter is not something you hear in every jazz recording nowadays, not by a long shot, and indeed hasn’t been that way since the “free jazz” revolution of the 1960s. (Even in such a brilliant album as the recent set by Eric Dolphy issued on Resonance Records, the solos are pretty much an “each man for himself” affair, with little attention paid to what anyone else is/was playing.) Herminie opens up with a swing feel, but quickly moves into a more relaxed 3/4 bridge before going back to the swing tempo. Although Elliot uses fewer instruments, there’s an eerie kinship between the music on this album and the compositions produced in the ‘60s by the Rod Levitt “Orchestra,” which was normally just an octet or nonet, which is to say, quirky melodic lines, odd juxtapositions of tempo, gutsy solos and more than a little bit of humor (St. Mary’s Proctor, with its odd ragtime-like beat and quirky melody, is a prime example). Those readers unfamiliar with Levitt should make themselves acquainted with his music forthwith. The guy was far ahead of his time, which is why his orchestra died commercially.

For all the fine contributions of baritone saxist Charles Evans and trombonist Sam Kulik, it is pianist Danny Fox who is the most creative soloist and the one who holds things together structurally. Every note and phrase he plays makes sense, develops the musical line and feeds into the others. Evans, in fact, sometimes seems more of the “I’m playing for myself” kind of soloist, which as I say is acceptable nowadays but not as interesting to me as someone like Fox who always holds the tune’s structure in his head.

If the reader feels I am giving short shrift to Elliot himself, I am not. His compositions, with their quirky structures and weird energy, are proof enough of his talent. It’s just that, at least on this first album, his contributions as a player are limited mostly to providing a solid foundation in the background, though he does open Baden with a bit of solo playing (but not a solo in the conventional sense). Yet he was wise to restrict himself in these pieces, which are not “open” structures but tightly-composed compositions. More often than not, a bass solo would lower the energy created by the music as conceived and improvised upon. Indeed, the manner in which Baden develops is a perfect example of what I mean. By the tune’s end, it is the overall form that sticks in your head despite the excellent solos (trombonist Kulik is particularly good on this one).

Can’t Tell Shipp From Shohola is, surprisingly, a slow jazz waltz, albeit one with an irregular and rhythmically fractured melody line (Elliot says that he grew up in a household where Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich were played successively on the family phonograph), and once again it is the structure of the tune that grabs one. Kulik’s surprisingly understated, almost reticent solo is a surprise as well, yet it fits into the piece beautifully. At the 4:40 mark there’s a superb piano solo with Elliot’s bass perfectly underpinning it both rhythmically and harmonically without being obtrusive. The final tune of this album, Slab, is a nice swinger with a descending chromatic line and quirky, Stravinsky-like rhythmic displacements, once again reminiscent of the kind of work Red Levitt did (think of Mr. Barrelhouse). Fox, once again, has (for me) the standout solo, though Evans is also quite good.

We then come to the “rock band” album, aptly titled Unspeakable Garbage. But of course, this is a group of jazz musicians aping contemporary rock music, so there’s always an undercurrent of jazz feeling to the performances as well as a structure (albeit more hidden here than on the first album). It is, however, unspeakably loud and noisy, so I warn you to turn the volume down when you reach the first tune, Rocks, MD, which sounds like a combination of Sam Butera, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler playing rock music. The one problem I had with this is that I couldn’t really tell if these pieces and the solos were intended to be strictly tongue-in-cheek or whether the musicians really meant what they were playing. Happily (for me, at least), Punxsutawney sounded more like old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with a few not-so-happy squeals from the saxist, who calls himself “Dr. Rock.” The promo sheet indicates that they do take this stuff seriously since it is “a style that all the members love dearly.” Well, I don’t love it, not even casually, let alone dearly. One online reviewer said this was the most “fun” album in the series. If fun is listening to ultra-loud, head-banging nonsense, go for it. My musical radar is set to a higher level, sorry. By the time I reached the end of Punxsutawney I had more than enough, and skipped all the rest of the tracks.

AdvancingThe “dance band” album, Acceleration Due to Gravity, also has a certain bit of a rock feel and even a bit of a heavy metal feel in addition to hip-hop (a code term for “all rhythm and no music”). This one, too, was far beyond my tolerance level. Sorry, but if this is what you’re selling, I’m not buying it.

A split review, then. If by any chance Advancing on a Wild Pitch is indeed available as a separate album, by all means get it. It’s a gem from start to finish. As for the other two, in my view they are only suited for listeners who have zero taste in music. Even for the occasionally clever things they throw into these pieces, it’s not enough to salvage what is, for me, an extraordinarily harsh, ugly and unpleasant listening experience.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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