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.