Saturday, April 06, 2019

CD Review: Moppa Elliott - Jazz Band/ Rock Band/ Dance Band

Moppa Elliott
Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band
(Hot Cup)

Moppa Elliott is not one to shy away from a big concept. The bassist, after all, took part in a note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue with the release of Blue by his band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. That band's m.o. from their earliest days was to be able to both play free and be able to a "genuinely convincing version of rhythm changes if we want to," as he told me a couple years ago. Elliott, and by extension the group which otherwise played his compositions almost exclusively, might have been a little provocative at times, and perhaps a bit ironic, but the guy knows the music inside and out. He know what he's talking about.

The scope of Jazz Band/Rock Band/ Dance Band brings forth a triumvirate of bands, each executed separately. Spread over two discs (or three records, according to the press kit) Elliott convenes three groups that live up to the album title: Advancing on a Wild Pitch, a straight ahead jazz quintet; Unspeakable Garbage, a quintet that plays instrumental rock; and Acceleration Due to Gravity, a nine-piece group that might not exactly be a dance band in a modern or traditional sense, but nevertheless produces a strong set.

Jazz Band features Sam Kulik's trombone and Charles Evans' baritone sax in front of a rhythm section consisting of Elliott, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman. This album features compositions from the MOPDtK book taken in a largely straightforward direction. ("Slab" is the only new composition.) The blend of the two lower horns gives the session a particularly rich sound.

While the arrangements of the slow waltz "Can't Tell Shipp from Shohola" approximates the version that appeared on Slippery Rock, hearing it without Kevin Shea's gargantuan press rolls allows it to become more like a ballad. "Herminie," dedicated to pianist Sonny Clark, settles more into the Horace Silver-esque bass line (think of "Que Pasa"), and, like a number of these tracks, creates music that would have sounded right at home on a '60s Blue Note album. Note - that's much different that an album that tries to sound like or recreates the feeling of an album like that. Furthermore, Moppa the band leader, Moppa the record label owner and Moppa the bassist have been recognized. This disc pays special attention to Moppa the composer.

Rock Band was inspired by a love of '80s rock music by members of the group that play on this session. Although they appear with era-appropriate pseudonyms on the cover, it consists of Elliott, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Dan Monaghan, keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and guitarist Nick Millevoi. On first examination, this set evokes one clear thought to someone who grew up in the not-always-awesome decade that it evokes: television theme songs. In the previous decade, funk made its way into living rooms via Sanford & Son and Barney Miller. In the '80s, the studios were merging big band charts  - and strings - with distorted guitars in a crossover attempt, much as the network brass was trying to lure viewers.. Catchy melodies were still there, but Magnum P.I.  and the sax-heavy opening to Cagney & Lacey added some steroids to the sound.

It's not hard to imagine a freeze frame on a smiling supporting cast member while listening to the anthemic "Stone Hill." "Big Rock," the final track, even moves with the farewell of a closing theme, as the credits role. During the themes of these cuts, Irabagon could very well be Tom Scott, belting away as if he's afraid of being drown out by the amplifiers.


Listen a few more times and you realize Scott would never unleash a torrent of altissimo wails and make a complete statement with them like Irabagon does in "Rocks, MD." (James Carter might, but that's another story.) Scott would also never get into a battle of noisy wits with a Farfisa organ as it happens in the punchy "Punxsutawney." Once the culture shock wears off, the charm sets in. This is no novelty. Elliott means it. Or if he doesn't, I'm still watching. Um... listening.

Dance Band features the bassist along with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Bryan Murray (soprano, tenor and his own balto! saxophone), Matt Murray (alto, soprano), Kyle Saunier (baritone), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Dave Taylor (trombone),  George Burton (piano) and Mike Pride (drums). It also has some of the wildest performances of the whole set.

This set features the one non-Elliott piece in the form of Kanye West's "Power." The arrangement will most likely leave its author scratching his head. In addition to regular interjections for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," it includes a pungent alto solo by Murray, followed by an absolutely searing trumpet solo from Wooley, a harmonized soprano duet that could have been lifted from the last track and a final statement from Mendoza. The rest of the set is equally dense, coming off sometimes as heavy but also highly layered.

It all makes you wonder how Moppa Elliott can follow a magnum opus like this.

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