Monday, October 20, 2014

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Blue

The jazz world is in a bit of an uproar over the new album by Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDTK), Blue (Hot Cup 141). If you don't already know, MOPDTK recreate here the entire Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue, reproducing all the notes the original band played on the released takes--not only the heads, but all the solos, all the rhythm section utterances.

That people have reacted so strongly, with or without hearing the actual recording, is a sign that MOPDTK have treaded on sacred jazz ground, so to speak. My first reaction initially was anger and vexation, to tell the truth. Then I stopped myself. "Why?" I have found MOPDTK one of the very most important of new groups in jazz. I've gotten a kick out of the reproduction of classic cover designs but found always that the music takes tradition and makes something new of it, no matter what period is channeled. So what is it about Blue that caught me off guard?

One of the answers that first comes of course is that jazz by definition involves individual expression, that both rhythm sections and soloists have great latitude in what they play, typically. Kind of Blue and that first version was all about soloing on more or less modal forms. Miles, Trane, Cannonball, Evans or Kelly, Chambers and Cobb gave the album its classic quality by taking the wonderful compositional ideas there and expressing themselves with spontaneity. All jazz does not have to have continuous improvisations--and it still can be jazz. But this is copying. And of course that's the point. But then is it jazz?

MOPDTK do not go here for self-expression, though they surely could have and done a wonderful job had they wished, playing their own version. Instead they try to recreate the original EXACTLY, or that's how we experience it.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Kind of Blue was not singled out as the holy of holies, the "greatest jazz album ever made". In fact when I was at Berklee (1971-2) the album was acknowledged and respected, but the album everybody was concerned with then was Bitches Brew, the Miles iconic foray into electric and rock forms. The need to name "the world's greatest jazz album" simply wasn't a concern. With the rise of Neo-Trad and its very vocal narrowing down of what they considered "legitimate" (electric jazz like Bitches Brew and free-avant jazz in general were considered mostly illegitimate) suddenly Kind of Blue was enshrined as the one greatest achievement in jazz.

As wonderful as the album is, the attempt to create in it the jazz equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth was unfortunate, perhaps. The public has no time for anything and if they only want one jazz album, just like maybe they only want one classical, the "authorities" needed to choose it. I don't think this ultimately is good for jazz, and maybe not even for classical, in that there can never only be one and the reaction is to have large segments of the listening public with no time to waste coming to own Kind of Blue and/or Beethoven's Ninth and nothing else.

So at this point Kind of Blue has been sacralized. Miles and Coltrane, too, are the closest thing to jazz deities as you are likely to find. The (deserved) reverence for these two masters is near worshipful. Like a holy book in an organized religion, Kind of Blue is a kind of holy text, for the jazz community one among many, to part of the world the only, the highest of the high.

So, one reacts in one's gut with, "What? How can these guys have the temerity to reproduce the album note-for-note? Do they imply that they themselves are on the plane of Miles and Trane?" Well I think that surely they weren't about that with this album. What they were about is much more complex.

First of all there is the factor of conservative reification. As someone with an involvement in jazz since childhood on many levels, I can see that the changes in the distribution and transmission of jazz have had a dramatic effect since the '50s when I was tangentially exposed, then into the sixties when I really started listening, and eventually, playing (primarily as a drummer) the music. The new recordings were the point certainly in the sixties. Moving to the next step was in the air. New jazz artists and evolving styles were given much attention.

Sometime in the early seventies the reissues started become a big factor, as more and more looking backwards became important. All jazz people generally speaking have done this, have developed a good grasp of the history. But as things evolved in that period there was more and more an emphasis on what had gone before, even to the extent that the present, new jazz masters were subject to questioning or even ignored. There came a point where many people felt that the best jazz was in the past, that what was most worthwhile was already done. With that came the rise of jazz repertoire. Jazz at Lincoln Center did and does a good bit of recreating Duke or other classic jazz artists. At the same time Kind of Blue was more and more enshrined as the ONE.

As a young up and coming jazz artist today your training involves in a big way assimilating some of the masters and their techniques. Jazz programs in music schools often stress the ability to play past forms of the music before you develop your own style. Sometimes it results in players who don't seem to have a personal sound or style. In the past players were exposed to classical music and learned jazz on their own or through mentorship and bandstand education. The new education stresses a certain homogeneity and a pantheon of players and techniques to be learned.

Take all this and throw MOPDTK into the maelstrom. Here are five exceptionally talented young players, subjected to all the inertia of the jazz scene the way it has evolved. How do you develop a personal sound and get recognized when the world is saying "there can be nothing new"? That Kind of Blue is the perfection, the end-all of the music? Well in previous recordings they have taken the past forms of jazz and made them their own, in part, but changing the music as they did so, adding a very personal element, originality. To turn to Kind of Blue now and recreate it exactly is a new move. It is a comment, a gesture, a statement.

So what are the results? An uncanny duplication of sound and style of the original. It is an impressive achievement, just to channel both Trane and Cannonball so successfully takes real musicianship, and Irabagon does it to perfection. Peter Evans and Miles you could say the same thing of, and so forth down the line.

And now this disk calls forth the pontification from authority, as can be expected, but this time you get all kinds of spins. The jazz community, judging by social media, has responded vocally and in some cases angrily. This is not what jazz is about, they say, some of them. Jazz is about soloing and playing in your own style. They are right. Some reviewers--and I try not to read them right now, but this I have heard--give the album a big thumbs up. Some say it is only doing what classical music has been doing. But classical music at least today does not have the recorded example of, say, a Mozart symphony that they try and get exactly right, to copy it verbatim. They bring to the written score varying interpretations and that's why there continue to be so many recordings and classical listener-collectors who have sometimes many different recordings of the same piece. The point is in part authenticity but also in part the stamp of personal artistry in each performance.

MOPDTK have striven for the opposite in a way, to reproduce the album as exactly as they could. Listening you hear sometimes a slightly more lyrical twist now and again, but it is very subtle. They nail the original almost completely. So much so that I ended up comparing the recorded sound versus the old Columbia Studio's sound, which was in many ways a tad more alive--Columbia engineers and that studio recreated the Miles sound in audio with an incredible flair. So maybe the actual sound of the mastered new MOPDTK is the most obvious difference.

What stands is the remarkable brilliance of the channeling. This was no easy exercise. And a true love for the original record and musicians comes through too, very clearly. If they are making fun it is NOT of the music. In some ways they seem to be saying, "look jazz world, if all you want to do is talk about the past and the great masters, where do we fit in? OK, you just want Kind of Blue and to hell with what comes after? Well, here it is then, note-for-note!"

Given all that, should you go out and buy this record? Should I as a so-called critic "rate" it? This record is amazing but by rating it I pretend that this is a new trend that should be or shouldn't be incorporated into how we think of jazz. I won't rate it. If you buy this one, it should not be because it is something new. It is most emphatically something NOT NEW. And that may be the point of course. I will say that hearing it a number of times makes we want to go back to the original, that it fills me with wonder about the brilliance of the players and their solos, of the album as a whole. I will file the album not under MOPDTK, but next to the original. If you buy it, it is to experience the chill of uncanny reproduction. But really that's all.

It is a statement, a protest maybe, about the state-of-the-art today. I have no doubt that MOPDTK will go on to make breathtaking original albums after this. This is something they had to do and I applaud their nerve. But I do not then say, go get it. People will, no doubt, do that out there, just because it is Kind of Blue. Otherwise you may not need to, really. MOPDTK this is not, other than in name. This cannot be a trend. It's great but not for the reasons we seek out jazz first-hand. It is a great gesture. It shows remarkable musicianship. It isn't something that forwards the music except in the form of a protest. That's how I feel.


  1. The visual artist Todd McKie did a silk screen edition years ago. It was a small black rectangle, meant to be seen as a chalkboard. On it were several white lines and a sentence repeated several times 'I will not make fun of conceptual art. It was a pitch perfect piece of post modern conceptual art, lovely to look at, and hilariously funny all at the same time. Whether MOPDTK have achieved this with their KOB record I can't say because I haven't heard it. But the fact that I don't particularly care to says that they haven't. I can't get past by the idea of this project, even if it's not what I think it is. As I've said elsewhere, sounds like Van Sant's Psycho, which I never saw.

  2. Thanks for the comment! That's the thing about conceptual art, isn't it? One person's Zen rock garden is another's meaningless sandbox. Music complicates things--where the visual arts can be gazed at for a second (even in reproduction) and you have an idea of how it works for you or not. "Blue" is conceptual but is also a hell of a lot of work--to duplicate "Kind of Blue" nearly exactly takes countless hours. It takes time to listen, more if you spun if five times like I did. And some people (I can understand this) won't care how close you come. The fact that it has power is clear by the absolute uproar it has fomented. Does it rival Duchamp's urinal? Maybe not. MOPDTK will go on and I hope get back to what they are so good at--their OWN music. Again, thanks for putting in your words.