Types and tokens of blue
Tue 11 Nov 2014 09:12 AM
Yesterday I learned about recent work by jazz combo Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their album "Blue" is a note-for-note remake of "Kind of Blue". They transcribed all of the solos and performed them with meticulous care so as to produce a recorded album that replicates, as much as they could, the sound of the original.
The exercise has philosophical implications, and they know it. There are echoes of Pierre Menard's Quixote, which they foreground by using the Borges short story as their liner notes. Menard's goal, however, was not to copy but to put himself in a state of mind where he would write words that coincided with Cervantes' original. The parallel exercise would be if the band had tried to live their lives in a way which led them to improvise just the same notes which Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and the rest improvised back in the 1950s. That exercise would not have produced this album, because that exercise would not have led to something which sounds so precisely like "Kind of Blue".
So it's important that the band transcribed the solos, recorded tracks separately, and acted so carefully so as to preserve information from the original performances. One natural reaction is that such slavish emulation isn't jazz. Moppa Elliott (bassist for the band) discusses this point in an interview about the project. He asks, "Is what we did even jazz? If it isn’t, what does that make it? If it’s not jazz, why not?"
I've now read a bunch of reviews of the album. Perhaps the best is Bruce Lindsay's deadpan paean. It's odd that nobody refers to "Blue" as a cover of "Kind of Blue". Part of this is because 'cover' is a category in rock music, not jazz. Rock and jazz have different versioning practices. But there's a familiar variety of cover where musicians attempt to play a song so that it sounds precisely like a canonical version of that song. In our terms, this is a mimic cover.
The similarity to a mimic cover makes it odd when Marc Meyers in the Wall Street Journal review speculates that, "If 'Blue' is even moderately successful, jazz, rock and soul musicians may be motivated to clone other pivotal works like the Beatles' 'Rubber Soul,'..." Beatles covers and cover bands are already a thing.
In the paper where we introduce the phrase, Christy, Cristyn, and I argue that mimic covers are properly evaluated in terms of their fidelity to the original. I'm not sure whether that's the case with "Blue". Elliott suggests that the point is the opposite, to get people to listen to the original with an attentiveness to precisely those features which couldn't be or at least weren't faithfully reproduced in the cover.
However, because it is a transcription and performance by skilled musicians, "Blue" preserves information about the original (in a technical sense of 'information'). So one gets a kind of access to the original by listening to the new album. Imagine civilization collapses, all copies of the original Miles Davis album are lost, but somehow a copy of "Blue" survives. Certainly the jazz techno-priests in that dystopian future would listen to the album as a way to appreciate the way Davis and his band played, not the way Elliott and his band played. The performances, as repeatable interpretation types, are preserved in this meticulous homage.
In our less counter-factual dystopia, however, we have recordings of "Kind of Blue" to listen to alongside recordings of "Blue". The new album is like one half philosophical thought experiment, one half virtuosic accomplishment, and one half redundancy.
Tue 11 Nov 2014 12:13 PM
Wow. Listening to the "All Blues" re-do was much stranger than I expected it to be. Coincidentally, I'd heard the original in the car just hours before when Oz turned it on. The craftsmanship of the re-do is impressive, but the (sax especially) solos are astonishingly lifeless. Felt a little like when you turn on "Soloist" in Band-in-a-Box and set it to "Coltrane". Pretty interesting exercise; I couldn't stop hearing the differences. (The trumpet is less jarring, but maybe mostly because Miles was in his *underplay everything* phase.)