The antic modern band courts controversy, and philosophy, by recreating the most famous jazz album precisely, exactly, note for note for nuance. Can you tell the difference? You should be able to, and that’s the point.
Copying a famous work of art can be an act of reinvention or interpretation, or it could be a pure act of theft. Or maybe it could be something else entirely.
Of course, there are works of art that are designed to be reproduced. Written compositions in the Western classical canon are set down in music notation precisely so that musicians can repeat them in performance. The same is true of a choreographed dance or a stage play.
Other art is thought of as entirely singular, and recordings by jazz musicians that include improvisations are typically in that category. There is just one version of the movie Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There is just one version of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. There is just one version of Miles Davis's 1959 studio recording, Kind of Blue.
But, actually, all three of those statements are somewhat false. In 1998 Gus Van Sant produced and directed a mostly shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. It was made in color rather than black and white, with different actors naturally, but with almost the same script, a re-recording/rearrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s famous score, and the replication of most camera shots, framings, and editing. The Mona Lisa has been copied too many times to count, and by Da Vinci contemporaries (possibly even by Da Vinci himself) as well as modern artists such as Salvador Dali (who painted a "Self Portrait as Mona Lisa"), Andy Warhol (many times), and Banksy.
Now, Mostly Other People Do the Killing has copied Kind of Blue, note for note, inflection for inflection, in tempo and phrasing, from horns to piano to rhythm section, even attempting to replicate the tape hiss from the old Columbia recording. To be extra clear: the group has not used the tunes from Kind of Blue to make a new cover that includes their own, original improvised solos. This recording sounds as much as possible like the original recording. It is an attempt at replication, not interpretation.
Reaction to Blue has been quite varied. Many folks have criticized bassist Moppa Elliott and his bandmates for carrying out this idea, something that they first starting talking about years ago as a kind of thought experiment. I won’t rehash Elliott’s ideas about why this exercise was interesting to him and his band, as he published a thorough interview on the topic here at PopMatters. I will note, however, that this is a case where considering the intent of the artist is absolutely essential.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing is not trying to fool you into thinking that Blue is the band's own music. The liner notes consist of the famous Borges story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which is a piece of mock-literary criticism about a writer who tries to sink so thoroughly into Don Quixote that he can recreate it, line by line. The band’s stated intent is to raise questions about what "authorship" really means, but more specifically to the art of jazz. How does a musician’s life and total being generate his sound aside from just the notes he plays? How does the subtle and complex interplay between live musicians generate the feeling and specificity of a performance? Does the fact that a piece of music is spontaneously improvised make the actual notes that are played more profound than if the same notes are played based on a written score? If a piece of improvisation can be closely copied, is the resulting copy less original than a new recording of a written score?
Blue raises these questions with knife-edged care because it is as faithful a recreation of its original as you can possible imagine. Of course, each musician transcribed his part from the original, not just the notes but every element of every note, from the attack to the timbre to the decay and irregularities of sound. Each part was then recreated in the studio in a series of overdubbed takes, to assure that each note was close to perfect. Each cymbal hit by Kevin Shea is very close to Jimmy Cobb's original. Peter Evans’ "imitation" of Miles Davis is often uncanny, with small imperfections of tone aped at just the right moment. Ron Stabinsky is here on piano, trying to achieve the touch of both Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. Jon Irabagon plays the parts of both John Coltrane on tenor and Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, playing their notes but attempting to achieve their tones, their timbres, their souls(?).
How close is the sound to the original? The casual listener, even a Davis fanatic listening casually, will not likely hear the difference. These are brilliant musicians who have all worshipped Kind of Blue for years and have played transcribed solos as part of their jazz education. Blue is the ultimate example of that act. Of course, critics will carp that to pay tribute to the original, the last thing you should do is make a copy of it, but the rest of Mostly Other People Do the Killing's career and discography has been wonderfully original, demonstrating these musicians' dedication to find their own sound. Mostly Other People Do the Killing is not trying to be a tribute band. The peculiar and off-base lead review in this month's Downbeat praises the band because it will be able to bring Kind of Blue to live audiences who could never "hear it in person", missing the point utterly.
No, the "art" of this recording is in a concept, brought daringly to life: as close as Blue is to Kind of Blue, it is the precisely the fact that it is a "near miss" that makes it intriguing and worth our time. Because -- and Mostly Other People Do the Killing is keenly aware of this, indeed this awareness sits at the center of the album's heart -- Kind of Blue cannot be replicated, no matter who tried it or how complete their immersion in the original may have been.
The essence of this record is in the fact that a sharp listener can't help but hear the difference. Irabagon sound like Trane, yes he does. And I've heard thousand improvised solos by other saxophonists that sounded just as much like Trane but unwittingly so, clones without originality that were trying to be original. But there is something not quite right about it. The jagged, stop-start runs on "So What"'s tenor solo are studied and not quite in conversation with the drums. The tone is Coltrane-ish to a fault but Coltrane himself. There are little rhythmic turns that are off by some fraction of a hair that change the sense of fluidity that we hear in the original.
What causes these differences? Is it the fact that Jon Irabagon is in his 30s and wasn't alive during Coltrane's life, that his experiences in our culture have been different, that his fingers aren't Trane's, his embouchere unique, his brain wired differently, his many years in jazz education and never in Dizzy's big band? Or is it somehow the fact that creation in the moment is inherently singular, which is to say that if Coltrane himself, minutes after he had played the "So What" solo had sat down, transcribed it, practiced it, and repeated it, that even he (presumably accompanied by Evans, Paul Chambers, and Cobb doing the same thing) could not have recreated the moment. It's something.
Go back to that 1998 remake of Psycho with Vince Vaughn playing Norman Bates and Anne Heche playing Marion Crane, with Danny Elfman's version of the Herrmann score rather than the original. You may prefer Vaughn to Anthony Perkins or Heche to Janet Leigh, but it's not the same movie and it's also not a different, better movie. Psycho was special because the particular mix of script, score, acting, direction, lighting, editing that came together in 1960 to create that film was unique, human, some kind of magic. I watched Van Sant's Psycho and thought, wow, that's a cool idea for a movie, but that was just the idea, not the movie itself. And I was off to the video store to rent the original.
Listening to Blue sends you back to Kind of Blue with a fervor and a deep appreciation of its greatness and beauty. I remember having a similar experience decades ago when Jon Hendricks recorded a version of "Freddie Freeloader" on which he sang a vocalese version of the Coltrane solo (with Al Jarreau singing the Miles solo, Bobby McFerrin voicing the Wynton Kelly solo, and George Benson singing the Cannonball solo). How cool to hear those iconic solos through a different lens. Did Coltrane really play those notes spontaneously? Wow. It wasn't "Freddie Freeloader", but it refracted "Freddie Freeloader". It was a deriviative work of art but a work of art still, one that couldn't mean anything without the original but one that derived meaning and power from its relationship to the original, like Dali's "Mona Lisa" to which he added a Dali-esque mustache and a twinkle in the eye.
Blue has a twinkle in its eye. It is better than Psycho (1998) because it is deeply true to its subversive, thoughtful intent to recreate a work of genius and fail, but to fail as barely as possible, to fail with a kind of purity, and in that failure to illuminate for listeners the spark of humanity and individuality that sits at the center of jazz. Of all art.