Kind of, Kind of Blue: A Conversation with Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Mostly Other People Do the Killing have taken on an ambitious task: recreate Miles Davis' landmark Kind of Blue note for note. Except, as bassist Moppa Elliott notes, note-for-note might just be impossible.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
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Photography by Bryan Murray

Mostly Other People Do the Killing‘s new album Blue is a note-for-note re-creation of Miles Davis’ classic 1959 recording, Kind of Blue. The audacious project, first conceived by Moppa Elliott and Peter Evans in 2002, intends to challenge the way people listen to jazz. By transcribing and recording what is arguably the greatest jazz album of all time, Mostly Other People Do the Killing affirms the greatness of the original while questioning the direction of jazz in the 21st century. The thought-experiment-cum-album forces to listener to examine what makes jazz actually jazz and brings the non-notatable elements music to the foreground: timbre, articulation and the ineffable nature of tone and feel.

Standing in for Davis’ classic band are Peter Evans on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto and tenor saxophone, Ron Stabinsky on piano, Moppa Elliott on bass and Kevin Shea on drums.

Bandleader Elliott sat down with his brother Greg in March of 2014 to discuss the inspiration and creation of Blue.

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Greg: Why did you decide to do this kind of project?

Moppa: We thought about this years and years ago, and some part of my memory puts it while we were at Oberlin. Talking about this in like 2002. At that point, a note-for-note recording of Kind of Blue was one of many ridiculous things that we talked about doing and assumed that we probably never would.

But over the next several years when we would talk about it, it was such an interesting thought experiment that, at a certain point, it became possible and then a good idea. We seriously decided to do it four or five years ago, I remember doing the first transcriptions around January of 2010 during the first Mostly Other People European winter tour. Once the other guys started transcribing, too, we realized that it was actually going to happen. ‘We’re gonna do this.’ We weren’t clear on how, or when, or the particulars yet. It moved from thought experiment to thing we’re actually going to do.

G: What were some of the things that you guys liked about the idea? What were some of the conversations that you had about why to do it?

M: There were many. Transcribing forces you to learn this vocabulary, and in a certain sense, you are then emulating something that already happened. And the idea behind transcription is that by learning that vocabulary, you then take what you’ve learned and play it again, sometimes note for note, whether you want to admit or not, certain licks, in a different context.

So now that I’ve transcribed Miles Davis’ solo on “If I Were A Bell”, I now have at my disposal all of those licks and lines when I play ‘If I Were A Bell” or “Bye Bye Blackbird” or whatever. That aspect of it, I always thought of as a learning tool. A lot of the Kind of Blue thing is about taking good ideas and pushing them to their logical extreme.

Jon [Irabagon, saxophones] went to the Julliard Jazz Program for a graduate program, and one of the requirements—you know, the Julliard Jazz program is under the aegis of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center—is that on your recital, you have to perform a transcribed solo.

So let’s say you’re doing four tunes at your recital. One of those tunes has to contain your transcription of somebody else’s solo and you have to play it in context, i.e. not improvise. But that is jazz? Big question mark right there.

So we went to Jon’s graduate recital, and this is Jon’s subversive streak and it’s funny too. For his transcription, he transcribed a 12-minute, unaccompanied Steve Lacy solo, from one of those Steve Lacy records. And it’s Steve Lacy playing some little tune that he wrote, and then he blows for ten minutes, and then he plays the head. Jon played the entire transcription. Twelve minutes of recital. And we thought it was hilarious; but then it’s like, well wait a minute: what is that? Is that jazz? And, if you were to listen to Steve Lacy and Jon, would you be able to tell the difference, and if you could, does it matter? And if you don’t know the difference, how can you tell which one of them is jazz and which one of them isn’t? So does that make both of them jazz or neither of them jazz? So now we’re getting into this interesting area.

So then it’s like, ok, well now, if we play Kind of Blue, the entire album, note for note the same, and you put it on for somebody who doesn’t listen to that album constantly—some non-major jazz fan who just knows Kind of Blue—if we were to take our version and play it for them, and said like, “What is this?” and they were like, “Well, it’s jazz. Ok, yeah, this is Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.”

So if you can’t tell any difference audibly, and if we do it right, even playing it for you [Greg], you might not be able to tell the difference, and then, what is the difference? Is what we did Kind of Blue? Is what we did even jazz? If it isn’t, what does that make it? If it’s not jazz, why not? Listen to that music and tell me what the difference is, you know what I mean? Cuz then someone will be like, “Ok, it’s not jazz because you’re not improvising.” But if I just put it on and play it for you without telling you what it is first, you don’t know that. So you’re dismissing it for a reason that has nothing to do with the actual sound. It becomes not jazz for purely rhetorical reasons. The sound is clearly jazz, but because of the process that went into it, it magically becomes “not jazz”.

All of this gets even stickier when you can’t tell one from the other, and sometimes you won’t be able to. That’s one curious avenue. Another one has to do with the parallels, and this also gets at the Lincoln Center thing, between classical music and jazz. On a certain level, I totally agree with this and think Wynton Marsalis is awesome. The whole, “jazz acquiring the same social cachet as classical music.” And so the idea that jazz was this racially ostracized, discredited art music because the people who were making it were Black, is totally insulting and part of the terrible racist history of America. So there’s no artistic reason why Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilespie, Duke Ellington are not canonized the same way Mozart and Beethoven are. They should be. That’s bullshit.

So those guys are right that, yes, jazz should be culturally canonized to the same level as those other guys, and to deny that is to be a racist jackass. Fuck you then. End of conversation.

The problem with this is that, in a lot of ways, the canonization and institutionalization of classical music winds up killing classical music. Lots of smaller orchestras are on pretty shaky financial footing these days, and some of the big ones don’t sound very good. In fact, I have heard a lot of orchestras that are super highly paid, bourgeoisie-generated things, play shitty ass renditions of Mozart because they’ve played Mozart 40,000 times. They probably don’t even need to read the music anymore; they put that sucker on autopilot, and it’s not very good?

Orchestras that have to play five to nine concerts a week, and all the people I know who are in those orchestras talk about, you punch in a time clock. You’re basically a factory worker.

Maybe that’s not the best model for canonizing jazz. That kind of kills it, and I notice in going to concerts, you can tell when an orchestra wants to be playing the stuff that it’s playing, or that the conductor has gotten everybody excited enough to actually play the Music with a capital M, as opposed to this kind of like, bland recital.

But, as far as playing the transcription goes, no matter how closely we transcribe it, or how meticulous we are about our details, it is impossible to play Kind of Blue exactly the way those guys played Kind of Blue. Even on a note-to-note basis. I went through it pretty painstakingly, I’m sure there are at least five wrong bass notes in there, where, i.e. they’re on the take that we used, played a wrong note, and like, ok yeah, that was supposed to be an Ab but I played a Bb, whatever. But the rest of the take is cool, so we’re keeping it.

Moppa Elliott (photo by Bryan Murray)

And then with the horn players, it’s even more extreme. So those guys were improvising to a greater extent than even they usually would have been. Take Cannonball [Julian Adderly, saxophone on original recording of Kind of Blue], for instance. We all know and love Cannonball. Cannonball has certain licks that Cannonball always plays. There’s one that he plays on there that everybody knows, where he does that thing where he, like, trills the side key [makes the noise]. Which [clap] Cannonball. Right? That’s like a calling card.

The way Cannonball executes that lick and the way Irabagon executes that lick are never going to be exactly the same, because Cannonball and Irabagon are different human beings. Same thing with Kevin, or all of us for that matter. So on the textual level, it’s impossible to actually play it exactly the same. You can’t do it. Part of the enjoyment of listening to Toscanini’s Beethoven cycle versus the Herbert von Karajan cycle is that they’re different orchestras and different conductors bringing out different aspects of the score.

Ideally, when you listen to our version of Kind of Blue, it’s another rendition of the same score, and so certain things are going to sound different inherently, because we are different people interpreting the score differently. For me and us, those are the two most interesting aspects of the conversation. Still only two of them. Where on the one hand this is like pushing the jazz training thing to its logical extreme, and on the other it’s about interpreting a text like a classical score. That’s not really that interesting.

Then the other thing is these differences in textual interpretation bring out different things about listening, and then I think it gets really interesting where the way people are going to listen to this Kind of Blue is gonna be in a way that they probably, for a lot of people, have never listened to anything in their lives. In that, they are going to be listening to us and meticulously trying to find moments where we deviate from the original text that are, like, a tell, and think, “Yeah that doesn’t quite sound like Miles Davis because when he misses that note, it’s a little bit different.” Or when you do that side key trill on the alto, I can tell it’s not Cannonball.

So then it’s like, why don’t you listen to all music like that? Hopefully, this will wake people up. Everyone should be listening, on some level, to everything like that. What are all these tiny little nuances doing in there? Maybe the least interesting about the music is the notes. The most interesting things are all of these aspects of music that are non-notable. You can’t notate the difference between the way Cannonball plays it and the way Jon plays it. Yet, everybody’s gonna notice. Or maybe they won’t. Or the difference between the way Kevin hits the ride cymbal and the way Jimmy Cobb hits the ride cymbal. You can’t notate it, but you should be able to tell. Or the way I play quarter notes versus the way Paul Chambers plays, and those are the interesting things about music to talk about.

How do you talk about those things? Because on the surface it’s “exactly the same,” and then you get down to this next really interesting level, it’s like, well, now we’re starting to talk about timbre and weird tone color things and weird articulation things that we don’t even have words for. And how does it deviate, and what aspects of that deviation have to do with us making mistakes, with them making mistakes, and what aspects of that have to do with just like parts of our physique, like the fact that my hands are not Paul Chambers’ hands and the fact that Jon’s mouth and fingers are not Cannonball Adderley’s mouth and fingers? Or Peter versus Miles Davis?

And then beyond that, how much of it has to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up a black kid in Detroit in the ’30s? I didn’t go to Cass Tech High School, which was this musical hotbed in Detroit in the ’40s. I didn’t move to New York in the ‘50s as did this 19 year old virtuoso like Paul Chambers. I’m not 23 or however old he was when he did it. We recorded it in a studio in the summertime. They did it in the winter. Maybe it snowed that day and they were all complaining about the weather and dude had a cold. That’s where it gets interesting. How much of this is just because I’m not Paul Chambers, and what does that mean?

So how much of the way Paul Chambers plays the bass is just because he’s Paul Chambers. And like, he looks a certain way, and he grew up a certain way. And like, that’s the aspect of the stuff that like… that’s where it starts to get really interesting for me, the impossibility of doing it. It’s never going to be actually possible.

And then philosophically and musicologically, what do those differences then wind up meaning? I mean, in the thought experiment phase, we go to the point where we were just like, why don’t we just burn an original copy of Kind of Blue and stick it in a Mostly Other People Do The Killing sleeve? That would fulfill a lot of the same thought experiment requirements, but it’s like, no, this is more interesting.

G: Yeah, yeah. I agree. And it helps me rethink the way music is played, because it makes you think about playing music as this bodily thing. When you’re having to take into account the fingering someone used, and the bodily gesture that’s necessary.

In a certain sense, I guess what struck me was that this thing started out very cerebral, then the real mystery of it became physical, became the physical bodies, the people playing it, how this guy’s fingers hit these keys. There are all these different strands.

I think one of the things that will probably be obviously the most frustrating with this record is that people will want to simplify it and say, “this is what it’s about.” I think it’s obvious that there are many different streams of understanding that you can tap into. And I think one here that has been implied but wasn’t in the list, wasn’t what you were talking about, but you sort of alluded to it, is this very human, this kind of celebration, but that sounds cheesy, because it like gets to that place where you can’t really talk about it. It’s like as soon as you say it, it’s not “it” anymore, right?

M: Which is awesome.

G: Yeah.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing (photo by Bryan Murray)

M: That’s the shit right there. Well, it is like a Borges short story, which is going to be the liner notes, which, did I tell you about this? [Greg shakes head no] Well, the liner notes in the record, which people who have the record will see, consist of this Borges story, and so he did the same thought experiment a hundred years ago, only it’s a little bit different.

The narrator is a critic writing a critical assessment of the life and work of this French author Pierre Menard, author of The Quixote. And so Menard, who in the beginning of the thing lists the stuff he’d already done which is essentially nothing important, decides that he wants to re-create Don Quixote, which is the archetype, the first and greatest novel ever. So it talks about how, initially he’s going to study Cervantes’ life, he’s going to study 1500s Spanish war history to know, ‘cuz Cervantes was in the army and he served as a POW, learning everything he can about him to then inform his rewriting of this story by trying to get into the mind of Cervantes in order to write this thing.

But then it’s not enough. He has to find a way to write Quixote as himself, a 20th century Frenchman. And the idea is that he writes it and it comes out word for word the same because there’s only one way it could possibly be. Like, what Don Quixote is for the Western canon can only be one thing. And then Borges does this thing where he takes an excerpt from each version. The line is something like, “Fate, the mother of truth, the daughter of reality…” When Cervantes wrote that in 1567, it was talking about the way people viewed fate as ruling their lives and to say that it was the “mother of truth” was to talk about how you have to adapt to your surroundings.

To say that this story the same thing after World War II, when fate has been obliterated, is like the most revolutionary thing ever, it’s just awesome. Reading that, he hits the nail on the head: the text doesn’t mean the same thing the first time as the second time.

And so the idea is for Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly (on one tune), Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers to play that music in 1959 is this totally revolutionary, high, American art, couched in race. Bill Evans is there and they brought in Wynton Kelly, but then Bill Evans was playing on the album, but then Bill Evans says that, “well actually, the band sounds a little better on this one tune with Wynton Kelly playing piano, so have Wynton play that one thing.”

There’s this awesome racial dynamic: it’s 1959, it’s an integrated band. The difference between that and us, these bourgeoise, conservatory trained music nerds, to recreate it in 2012/2013, it means something totally different. And the thing that it means that’s different has to do with our relationship to history, and our relationship to recordings, and our relationship to art, and so on. And so for us to play those sounds now means something totally different than it meant when they did it before even if the end product is “exactly the same.”

G: Well which goes back to how we can listen to all this music that at the time sounded revolutionary, and now it’s just like we can be eating toast, and you’re in Starbucks, and it’s not the same.

M: Another little addendum to that is that you don’t know how many times I’d be playing standards gigs in Cleveland, and some like douchey, bourgeoise businessman, always the same kind of guy, would always say, “hey, can you guys play Kind of Blue?” What he really means is, “Can you play “All Blues?” But even though this guy is trying to demonstrate his jazz knowledge, in the process he (A) fails and (B) references this formerly revolutionary piece of art that is now kind of the same thing that’s happened to the piano. It’s become this bourgeois, misunderstood status symbol… a hunk of furniture.

If you’re a successful at all, educated white businessman, you own a copy of Kind of Blue, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You know, and it’s just like [laughs], no I don’t know that one. Or fine, we’ll play “All Blues” which is what you meant to say [laughs].

G: I know one of the things you’ve talked about at least with me is Kind of Blue being on in a Starbucks…

M: Yup. Well it’s like the Rite of Spring being in a Disney cartoon. Where formerly it started a riot, now it’s kid’s music in a cartoon. Kind of Blue is this totally revolutionary moment in African American culture, and now it’s in commercials.

G: Right. Now it sells cars.

M: Totally taken for granted. In a certain way, re-embodying it is a way of digging stuff up. Kind of Blue is the number one selling jazz album of all time, more listened to than anything else; yet, hopefully, we can dig stuff out of there that still hasn’t been digested. There’s still so much material in that art object; there’s a reason why it’s that awesome, and it’s because of all these little nuances.