Kevin Shea's two years at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, had their benefits, but he ultimately felt a bit confined. "The whole music-school way of telling you what to do, and not giving you opportunities to explore what you thought was music -- that was difficult," the drummer says, laughing. "Music school can mess up your passion for music."
Shea lived in Pittsburgh during the '90s, playing jazz with the adventurous 40 Stories and a freewheeling version of indie rock with Storm and Stress (featuring former Don Caballero/current Battles guitarist Ian Williams). Now in New York City, Shea plays in a number of musical projects including the quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
The members of MOPDTK (whose moniker comes from a comment by Leon Theremin, explaining why Stalin wasn't all bad) hail from various music schools, and each brings mixed feelings, like Shea's, to the bandstand. With album covers that ape classics by the Jazz Messengers and Ornette Coleman, the group has been labeled irreverent jazz pranksters, lampooning straight-ahead jazz. But that's not really its m.o. "It's not so much irreverence as anti-hero worship," bassist Moppa Elliot told JazzTimes last year. "There's this real hero-worship problem in jazz."
Shea is just as likely to break into a rock beat during "A Night in Tunisia" as he is to evoke Art Blakey. The band's new album, This Is Our Moosic, closes with a cover of Billy Joel's "Allentown." Rather than playing the irony card, it keeps with Elliot's commitment to playing songs named after Pennsylvania cities. "We're not trying to make fun of anything," Shea says. "There are many kinds of music that are fun to play, so we should be able to explore however we want and not feel guilty about cutting and pasting ideas."
Besides, listeners who don't know the group's reputation are more likely to be taken by its ability to swing. The piano-less saxophone/trumpet frontline evokes the feeling and playful mood of Ornette Coleman's early quartet, but the band's roots run deep. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, in fact, recently won the Thelonious Monk Institute's International Jazz Saxophone Competition, in part for the ability to switch from Ornette to Johnny Hodges at the drop of a hat.
As of a few weeks prior to its upcoming Pittsburgh appearance (when I spoke with Shea via phone), MOPDTK had no song titled "Pittsburgh," but Shea said that could change. "I'm going to call Moppa and see if he can write one for the show," he says. "That's a good idea."
Mostly Other People Do the Killing with Ryan Socrates Group. 8 p.m. Thu., Feb. 19. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $10. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com
- Not making fun: Mostly Other People Do the Killing