Of the many myths shattered or illuminated by Robin Kelley's engaging biography of Thelonious Monk, one of the most revealing was that Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and the other denizens of Minton's Playhouse did not set out to deliberately confound their musician peers with their new music. Rather, it was a situation where talented, young musicians collectively sought to play their way out of idiomatic dead-ends that had developed: apply these substitution chords to this structure and see what happens.
The allusion to that 70-year-old revolutionary step was impossible to miss when Mostly Other People Do The Killing morphed from one of their speed-jazz original compositions into Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" inside the OLG tent at last night's gig at the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Today, most young musicians who go through BMusic programs at NYU or the University of Michigan graduate knowing more about harmony than Monk and his associates knew at the end of their lives. They don't only know how Stravinsky influenced Charlie Parker; they also know how Parker influenced hip-hop artists who influenced Jason Moran and Robert Glasper. The world is a bigger place, and every young musician worth his or her AFM card knows how to get around it.
Let's blow it all up, agreed bassist Moppa Elliot, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea. With a sensibility that seems equal parts Spike Jones and The Bad Plus, MOPDtK shred musical conventions with all the abandon of the boppers and all the reverence of Ornette Coleman. They drive people out of their gigs in anger, and drive just as many people to yell lusty encouragement.
What those who leave miss is the level of technical skill that the quartet brings to the music. Evans is a ridiculously talented trumpeter who once told me that he takes as much influence from Cootie Williams as he does from Don Cherry. That he can take cues from both pioneers and create something new—like the burbling phrases he played through a close-miked Harmon mute, doubling Elliott's bassline—is the kind of thing that makes MOPDtK the most-exciting live band I've seen in quite a while.