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In early 2003, Moppa Elliott made a career move that, by most any jazz standard, would’ve been considered tragically unhip. Then a fresh face on the New York City jazz scene, the bassist/composer took a full-time job as a high-school biology teacher on Long Island. He had recently graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio, where in five years he had earned degrees in jazz performance and biology. Elliot subbed a few times at St. Mary’s High School to help make ends meet, and when a steady job opened there, he grabbed it.
He’d already spent a handful of years playing unsatisfying gigs at jazz clubs and weddings in Cleveland. The dues-paying was growing stale. “It was noticeably frustrating, and I assumed it would be much better in New York,” Elliott said recently, speaking by phone while driving through Pennsylvania between gigs with his band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. “I was surprised when it wasn’t.”
Elliott had come to the realization that a hardscrabble jazz life — scuffling for work, living hand-to-mouth and, most importantly, playing dreary gigs that left him feeling empty — was simply not something he could do. His new high school job provided an instant fix. “I was able to turn down hundred-dollar standards gigs that were making me dark,” he says. “And I realized I enjoyed teaching.”
“Becoming a teacher was not the hippest thing at the time,” says saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who, until 2017, was the saxophonist in Mostly Other People Do the Killing. “There were, and are, plenty of people in the jazz scene that would be looking over their shoulder wondering, ‘Is this the right move?’ Moppa just doesn’t care about that stuff.”
Elliott, 40, switched schools last year, and is now a music instructor at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens, a short commute from his apartment in Astoria. Working as a teacher, he says, has afforded him the financial freedom “to make the music I want, with whom I want, when I want.” It has allowed him to be a committed musical iconoclast with a finely honed aesthetic that has at times sparked controversy within the jazz world. Further, his salary helps subsidize an array of projects under the aegis of his own Hot Cup label. In the last three years, Elliott has released two MOPDtK albums — Loafer’s Hollow, a septet effort that deconstructs jazz from the 1920s and ’30s, and Paint, the group’s first recording as a piano trio — as well as a solo bass album, Still, Up in the Air.
And then there’s Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band, arguably Elliott’s magnum opus, which came out in February. It’s an ear-twisting triple album (on two CDs), each with a distinct stylistic approach and featuring a different ensemble. Elliott plays both acoustic and electric bass throughout.
Jazz Band, performed by the quintet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, is a straightahead acoustic effort that Elliott describes as “pretty squarely within hard-bop between 1955 and ’65.” It’s fueled by six lively Elliott tunes that evoke the era. The spirited playing, he says, is the product of “a bunch of experimental musicians who enjoy blowing over chord changes.”
Next up is Rock Band, by the four-piece Unspeakable Garbage. Elliott, who had a blast playing in Irabagon’s cheeky ’80s “tribute” act Starship’s Journey, wrote a collection of nine instrumentals in that idiom. Built on chunky riffs, basic major-chord changes and big beats, it’s a bracing slab of sound. In the place of vocals and guitar solos, the tunes feature Irabagon on tenor, free to get as unhinged as he pleases. Elliott views the project as a legitimate rock record, and those who don’t “aren’t listening closely enough,” he says. “There are jokes in there, don’t get me wrong, but the bigger joke is that we are not kidding. We are very sincerely playing the music. We are all fans of it.”
Finally, the most challenging portion, Dance Band, is performed by the eight-member Acceleration Due to Gravity. The music was inspired by hip-hop and its use of loops — although, frankly, it’s difficult for the untrained ear to make the connection. The six compositions, all under five minutes, amount to a sonic assault, an instrumental cacophony over rhythms that range from funk to ’50s rock ’n’ roll. “There is zero space,” Elliott says. “That’s why it’s only 25 minutes long. You could not take more. To me, that music sounds joyful in a super-highly-concentrated, weapons-grade primal scream kind of way.”
Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band took more than two years to write, organize, record, mix, package and release — all in the name of pure self-fulfillment. “Hopefully, people will like at least one of the three things, which is not an economically viable business model,” Elliott says. “You spend thousands of dollars on this thing that everyone is going to hate part of. The reason I can do that is that I’m not trying to make a living from it.”
[caption id="attachment_17932" align="alignleft" width="1240"] Moppa Elliott: "I love Duke Ellington songs. I like them so much that I’m inclined to tear them apart. I like to think that he would approve." Photo: Nathan Kuruna[/caption]
Matthew Elliott grew up in Factoryville, Pennsylvania (current population: 1,200), 15 miles north of Scranton. His parents taught at Keystone College, a small liberal arts institution in town. Both were, and remain, ardent jazz fans. His father, David, frequented New York City clubs in the ’60s, taking in Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Bill Evans and other legends. His mother, Carolyn, leaned toward the free-jazz of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and the like. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and edgy classical music was also played in the Elliott home. “A four-year-old listening to free-jazz and Miles Davis and Stravinsky around the house?” Elliott says. “That kind of sums it up.”
He got the name Moppa when his friend Charlie Evans started making fun of his long hair during Spanish class in middle school. That’s the same Charles Evans, by the way, who plays baritone sax in Advancing on a Wild Pitch and teaches music at the same high school as Elliott.
Moppa started with basic piano lessons, then took up trombone because it was handed to him in grade school. He later added tuba, then gravitated to electric bass, having discovered ’90s grunge rock and Primus, led by mercurial bass man Les Claypool.
Lackawanna Trail High School had a formidable music program, Elliott says. When a new director, J. Fred Quigley — who had played saxophone in touring Army bands — came onboard, he put more emphasis on jazz. Elliott picked up the acoustic bass at age 17 and took private lessons from Tony Marino, best known for his tenure with saxophonist Dave Liebman.
[caption id="attachment_17933" align="alignleft" width="200"] Photo: Nathan Kuruna[/caption]
Oberlin College and Conservatory turned out be a wonderland for a voracious, eclectic-minded musician who also loved to spend time in a bio lab. At Oberlin, Elliott befriended trumpeter Peter Evans, who was a year behind him in school. “The plan was that he and I would put a band together after we finished college,” Elliott recalls.
The bassist served his jazz apprenticeship in Cleveland, less than an hour’s drive from campus, playing in bands led by saxophonist Ernie Krivda and other post-bop veterans in town. While building his chops, Elliott started feeling disillusioned with conventional jazz, so he made the grass-is-greener move, arriving in New York City in 2002. Soon his internal turmoil reappeared. “I questioned the artistic validity of playing jazz in a regimented environment, where there’s a right way and a wrong way,” he says. “It’s antithetical to what I like in artists like Ornette, Cecil, Louis Armstrong, the AACM. I realized, ‘If I’m gonna play jazz, it has to be in a seeking, anything-goes way.’ I never felt the need to be a part of the living museum of jazz.”
He met Jon Lundbom and joined the guitarist’s outfit Big V Chord, which opened artistic doors. Then Peter Evans arrived in New York, and it was time to get their band going. They had a concept. “It was about deliberately undermining expectations, harshly juxtaposing disparate musical vocabularies in a jarring way,” Elliott explains. “It was definitely a postmodern critique, and it was damn fun to do.”
Elliott had written tunes. Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea rounded out the lineup. They needed a name. Elliott had stashed in his head a quote by Léon Theremin, the Russian engineer who invented the first electronic musical instrument to be mass produced. When once asked about working for Stalin, Theremin reputedly said it wasn’t that bad because “mostly other people did all the killing.” At least that’s how Elliott remembered it. “I heard that quote and thought, ‘That’s gonna be a band name,’” he says.
MOPDtK has released 11 albums with lineups ranging in size from seven to the current three pieces (with Shea and pianist Ron Stabinsky), but mostly the band has operated as a quartet. They’ve made music that’s virtuosic, head-spinning and walks a tightrope between subversiveness and reverence. “I love Duke Ellington songs,” Elliott says by way of explanation. “I like them so much that I’m inclined to tear them apart. I like to think that he would approve.”
One glaring exception to MOPDtK’s zig-when-you-should-zag approach came in 2014 when the band did their best to re-create, note-for-note, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, releasing it under the title Blue. The project sparked strong reactions — some found it humorous, others saw it as pointless. Elliott says that pretty much everyone he talks to about Blue has a different interpretation, and that delights him. “I got hate mail,” he adds, bemused. The group’s three prior albums — Shamokin’!!!, This is Our Moosic and Forty Fort — turned a modest profit. “Blue put an end to all that,” Elliott says.
“We had talked about the project for about five years, and it took us down a rabbit hole,” he adds. “I’m glad we actually did it and put it out there instead of leaving it as a thought experiment.”
[caption id="attachment_17934" align="alignleft" width="1240"] Moppa Elliott: “There were, and are, plenty of people in the jazz scene that would be looking over their shoulder wondering, ‘Is this the right move?’ Moppa just doesn’t care about that stuff.” Photo: Nathan Kuruna[/caption]
Irabagon calls Elliott a “lightning rod,” in that the bassist draws musicians with similar sensibilities into his circle — the “Hot Cup crew” — and is a galvanizing figure among a cadre of fellow travelers who resist jazz orthodoxy.
Elliott also sees himself, and by association MOPDtK, as a lightning rod, but in a different way — as a stirrer of controversy. “Early on, we referred to ourselves as a terrorist bebop band, which maybe hasn’t aged well,” he says wryly. “Irreverence was very much in the forefront in the beginning, a kill-your-idols thing.”
Further, Elliott’s mostly Caucasian ensembles have been accused of appropriating, and even mocking, a classic African-American art form. “The humorous aspect has been misinterpreted as malice,” he explains. “‘Why are these obnoxious kids making fun of black music?’ Because our music is based on a kind of hyper-educated deconstruction, it’s predisposed to being misinterpreted. We’ve been accused of acting in bad faith. I don’t think our music is guilty of those things, but for people on the lookout for it, we might come up on their radar as deserving of ire.”
Elliott says this with a kind of resigned acceptance, but implicit in the statement is that, while he hears the criticism and finds some of it valid, he’s not about to turn cautious. If that were the case, he’d ditch the name Mostly Other People Do the Killing, which he has no plans to do, even though it has cost him gigs. “I guess some people are hyper-sensitive to anything that suggests violence,” he says. “I’ve had pretty big festivals offer me a slot if I would change the name to something like the Moppa Elliott Quartet.”
He turned them all down.
All told, Elliott can afford to be stubborn. It circles back to his ability and willingness to live dual professional lives. Elliott says he’s fine if his career reverts to “playing in front of five friends in a shitty basement in the East Village like when we started out, making the music I want to make, the way I want to make it. If other people like it, that’s great; if they don’t, I really don’t care, because I have no economic interest in it. In that respect, I operate in an artistically privileged place.”- Eric Snider
Featured photo by Nathan Kuruna.