‘Slippery Rock’ improves on smooth jazz

Few genres in all of music are despised more than smooth jazz. Kenny G, the crown prince of this commercially-oriented subgenre, made his name and sold millions of records with music that emphasized emotional manipulation and a paradoxically aggressive mellowness. Songs would seem to end before they even began, wallowing in a swamp of muzak so thick that even elevator riders would half-raise their eyebrows in disapproval. All About Jazz’s review called smooth jazz “slandered.” I would put it as “righteously despised.”

Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK) is not a smooth jazz group, but a collective bent on finding worth and creative fun by exploring jazz conventions. Moppa Elliot, the band’s bassist, conceived of their new album, “Slippery Rock,” after deeply immersing himself in what I presume were dozens of peaced-out smooth jazz records. The album, thankfully, is neither a sneering spoof of those old albums nor a blissful trip to slumberland. Instead, the group mines smooth jazz for little idioms and bits of musical expression and builds them into blistering pieces that can scorch the ears at times but should thrill even those without an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. The album cover is a joke; the music within is considerably more complex.

All of the members of MOPDtK are virtuoso musicians in their own right and dangerously efficient and muscular players when together. This is evident right from the start as bassist Elliot and drummer Kevin Shea begin the album with infectiously energetic rhythms. The first track, “Hearts Content,” like all of the songs here, winds and twists through multiple unexpected changes in meter and tone, leaping from almost-danceable bass grooves to improvised chaos with little warning. Picking up the bulk of the attention is trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, both adept players who often improvise together in raucous but complementary ways. Irabagon can adopt multiple voices for his saxophone, whether full-bodied and melodic or harsh and screeching. This flexibility serves the band well over the whole record.

Another standout track is “President Polk,” a joyful riff on both smooth jazz and R&B. Employing piccolo trumpet and soprano saxophone, Irabagon and Evans reach piercing notes that evoke the anguished falsettos of R&B crooners like Prince. These elements are all at play, though it might take attentive listening to discern them since the listener’s first impression is of a band possibly having too much of a good thing. The group converses well and has its own unique musical vocabulary. “President Polk” demonstrates how unique that voice is by borrowing from multiple genres and still allowing the band to keep its integrity as a jazz group. The best track other than those two is the concluding piece, “Is Granny Spry?” which fails to answer its title’s question but proves that MOPDtK certainly is spry. Despite the discord and seemingly unfocused energy being expended in the song, it remains fully rooted in a distinct musical vision that I greatly enjoyed.

Those approaching this album should not expect anything soft or easily relegated to background listening. I appreciate this more thorny approach to music-making and hope that more people are able to listen to “Slippery Rock” and hear its slanted, distorted, invigorating beauty. It’s a unique way to have fun with music while still engaging critically.