If you’re unfamiliar with the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the first sign that they might have an offbeat sense of humor ought to be the name. That hasn’t stopped plenty of people from being outraged at the group's new album.
It’s called Blue, and it’s a reproduction of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, perhaps the most famous jazz album of all time. Not a tribute; not “inspired by”; not even a simple covers album. It’s a painstaking, note-for-note reproduction. The musicians have transcribed and reproduced each walking bass line, each cymbal tap, each Bill Evans piano flourish, each note of John Coltrane's and Cannonball Adderley's and Miles Davis’s solos.
What can be said about such a peculiar act? First, it’s not jazz. Second, it’s hilarious and important.
The first point is no condemnation, and it’s one that the musicians and critics seem to agree on—“obviously, our album Blue is not jazz,” bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott said in an interview with WNYC. But it might seem strange to the non-fan: It’s got saxophones and trumpets and pianos and that tap-ti-tap thing on the drums, and it sounds exactly like the greatest jazz album of all time. What about isn’t it jazz?
As Elliott put it, “the defining characteristic of jazz is improvisation,” and that’s by definition precluded from this project. Even in big-band swing, where a dozen or more musicians have carefully transcribed parts, there’s room for solos, and for variations from night to night—the band slows up, speeds down, gets excited, is feeling blue. Blue intentionally effaces all of that. There’s no room to play around; the notes are to be played just like Miles played ’em, and they’re to be played at the same tempo.
Paradoxically, Blue shows how much each individual performance matters. Despite the painstaking imitation, few close listeners will confuse it with Kind of Blue. This is music from the uncanny valley: It’s both incredibly familiar—many fans know the solos on the 1959 album by heart—and deeply weird.
Compare MOPDTK's version of "All Blues" with the original:
Maybe it has to do with the way it was made—for example, despairing of achieving true fidelity, the band recorded the rhythm tracks and horn sections separately, unlike the simultaneous live recordings on the original sessions. Maybe it’s just about the medium. (The analog freaks were right—digital really isn’t as warm!). But I think it’s actually mostly testimony to how great Davis’s band was. MOPDTK are no slouches—they are among of the finest players working today, and to have produced so close an imitation is a serious accomplishment. But no amount of meticulous necromancy can conjure the vibe of the original players, some of the greatest to ever pick up instruments. As the pianist Ethan Iverson writes, “The question, ‘How can you swing like Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb?’ gets no satisfactory answer on Blue. But at least we know something more about this question than we did before.”
Then why is Blue hilarious, and why does it matter?
Jazz has a self-seriousness problem, demonstrated this summer the by blowback to a post on The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs humor blog, purporting to be quotes from the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins; the gag is that he hates jazz. The big problem was that, like many Shouts and Murmurs items, it wasn’t funny. That didn’t preclude an apoplectic reaction from the self-appointed jazz police ensued, and eventually the magazine appended a note at the beginning “clarifying” that it was satire.
Some people seem to have mistakenly decided Blue, too, is poking fun at jazz. But it’s better to think of MOPDTK as court jesters. This is music intended to hold an unflattering mirror to jazz’s worst tendencies, not to mock the music before the outside the world. If you’ve done nothing wrong, dear listener or musician, you have no reason to be offended.
A common reference has been Duchamp’s readymades, which doesn’t quite hit the mark—where Duchamp took everyday objects like urinals and recontextualized them as fine art, MOPDTK start with a great work of art—but like Duchamp, the band uses humor to convey a serious point. Adding to the fun are the liner notes, which are simply a translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The story tells of a fin-de-siecle Frenchman who sought to rewrite parts of Cervantes’s masterpiece—not to copy them, but to come to exactly the same words through his own methods. The results are greater even than the novel, the narrator insists: “Cervantes crudely juxtaposes the humble provincial reality of his country against the fantasies of the romance, while Menard chooses as his ‘reality’ the land of Carmen during the century that saw the Battle of Lepanto and the plays of Lope de Vega.”
Borges was, of course, sending up a certain sort of literary criticism. And MOPDTK is sending up a certain mindset in the jazz world. The genre’s boosters often refer to it as “America’s classical music,” a term meant to argue for the serious musicianship of the style, to argue for the serious cultural contributions of Ellington and Coleman next to Bach and Beethoven—and perhaps help to attract precious cultural programming dollars. That’s more dangerous than it seems. Few would call classical music a commercially vital form, and Alex Ross recently lamented in The New Yorker how Beethoven and his peers in the canon dominate to the point of crowding out innovation. Equating jazz with classical music threatens to turn a genre born in brothels and boozy nightclubs into a museum piece. (I am hardly the first to make this point.) Blue is the reductio ad absurdum: If jazz is classical music, why not perform it like classical music? How, then, is Kind of Blue different from “Eroica”? Just play all the notes from the score, reproduce it exactly the same, the band smirks.
The joke is that no one has ever tried to recreate a record quite like this, but for the last six decades, musicians have performing music that sounds a lot like Kind of Blue and the other milestone records of its era. What was once modern jazz has become more and more dated, but that hasn’t dissuaded many people from recreating it over and over. And there’s no theoretical cover for self-satisfied or lazy music that sounds pretty much like (rather than facetiously identical to) late 1950s post-bop. Unlike Blue, that’s a bona fide affront to the jazz tradition, and real grounds for anger.
What Blue does not and cannot do is replace its namesake, though the new record has been criticized as plagiarism or as forgery—including by Davis’s nephew Vince Wilburn, who serves as a family spokesman. In addition to a statement from Davis’s estate saying it did not support the project, Wilburn blasted the record on Facebook, even while noting that legally, Blue breaks no rules. The accusation misses the mark, since there has to be some sort of deception to constitute plagiarism or forgery, whereas MOPDTK make no claims to be creating an original work. I’m fairly confident that everyone who will buy Blue already owns Kind of Blue. (The original has sold millions of copies; MOPDTK’s top-selling record has moved 1,200 units.) Many people who do will probably listen to it once or twice, maybe comparing it to the original, and then file it away to collect dust.
The single most entertaining knock on Blue is that Miles would object. The trumpeter was famously insistent on innovation, refusing to fall back on old styles or crutches (“You know why I quit playing ballads? ‘Cause I love playing ballads."). But to borrow the name of the first track on Kind of Blue (and Blue), So what? Exalting Davis to the status of a god, whose imputed opinions are incontrovertible, is an even worse form of idolatry than the one Blue’s critics have alleged; they have stepped into MOPDTK’s trap.
Are there valid complaints to be lodged against Blue? Sure. Some of the mimicry doesn’t hold up. It doesn’t always swing. It doesn’t add much to a music collection, if anyone still has those. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s a diversion from MOPDTK making their own, important music. But the provocation to the jazz world, the demand to make something that really is fresh and different and not just another halfhearted impression, just might be worth the sacrifice.