Reprising (and revamping) their extended line-up from Red Hot, Mostly Other People Do the Killing continues their inside-out exploration of capital-J jazz on Loafer’s Hollow. Their most recent albums, Hannover and Mauch Chunk, showed two sides of the core quartet. The former, a kind of victory lap for the original pianoless quartet, is a barn-burner of a live album. The latter is a (relatively) kinder, gentler introduction to the piano-quartet lineup of Jon Irabagon, Ron Stabinsky, Moppa Elliott, and Kevin Shea. As they did on Red Hot, when Stabinsky first guested with the group, MOPDtK brings back the septet for Loafer’s Hollow, with Brandon Seabrook and David Taylor returning on banjo and bass trombone, respectively. Although it was always going to be a challenge to replace Peter Evans, I don’t see how they could have done better than bringing in Steven Bernstein. From Sex Mob and Millennial Territory Orchestra, to his Diaspora tetralogy on Tzadik, Bernstein is one of the forefathers of MOPDtK’s multilingual in/out style.
As incredible and seemingly telepathic as ever, Shea is probably the standout player of this album. How he manages to be everywhere at once and one step ahead of everyone is, frankly, astonishing. But truly, the highlight is, as always, Elliott’s singular compositions. This time around, Elliott aims for the swinging ‘30s, drawing inspiration from the Count Basie Orchestra. Frequently, Seabrook and Stabinsky guide the group through stunningly gorgeous dance-band phrasing, with Elliott . True to the era, if unusual for MOPDtK, all but one of the songs clocks in under five minutes. “Hi-Nella” and “Honey Hole” provide an opening one-two punch of intertwining melodies, countermelodies, harmonies, and genuinely fantastic playing. Seabrook and Bernstein set the scene with excellent solos on “Hi-Nella.” On “Honey Hole,” Irabagon and Taylor take lead, with Taylor playing a particularly excellent solo near the end.
“Bloomsburg (For James Joyce),” which opens a literary suite that makes up the bulk of the album, moves in and out of a series of romantic statements, recalling themes of love and lust in Ulysses. The rest of the literary suite includes tributes to Kurt Vonnegut (“Kilgore”), Thomas Pynchon (“Mason and Dixon”), Cormac McCarthy (“Meridian”), and David Foster Wallace (“Glen Riddle”). Taken together, as their authors often are, Elliott’s compositions seem to comment on each other, phrases and idiomatic references either recur or reappear in variations. “Kilgore” features an extended Stabinsky solo that turns Basie’s style on its head, while echoing his solo from Red Hot’s “King of Prussia” (to my ear, at least, there’s even a different Joe Jackson reference dropped here). Stabinsky’s piano serves as the bridge into “Mason and Dixon,” with Shea putting in some of his finest work on the album. For a song dedicated to McCarthy, “Meridian” is surprisingly restrained, leading into the wonderfully dense and reflective “Glen Riddle.” Seabrook takes a late solo, over some excellent Bernstein and Irabagon doubling.
On album closer “Five (Corners, Points, Forks),” MOPDtK pulls off a rather stunning trick, performing a literal sonic journey from mono to stereo, with everyone first in the high register, before shifting over to a full band, full-range attack in the second half of the song. The effect is MOPDtK in miniature, where decades pass in an instant, and boundaries that once seemed solid now melt into air.