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Friday, October 31, 2014

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue (Hot Cup, 2014)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue (Hot Cup, 2014) ***

By Paul Acquaro

Mostly Other People Do the Killing is a group that has created an identity on creative parody, musical juxtaposition and incredible technical facility. Their albums have been given pretty rave reviews here … just going back a few years we covered the live Coimbra Concert, their take on smooth-jazz take with Slippery Rock, and the exploration of early jazz on Red Hot. Each time they quote, mash-up and generally celebrate jazz through deconstruction and proficiency. But with Blue, an uncanny remake of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, they seem to have reached the end of one possible path: an album that is one gargantuan quote. Or as the press materials indicate, the recording "draws attention to the aspects of music that are the hardest to talk about: timbre, time-feel, articulation”.

How do I feel about this album? I can honestly say that I don’t know. Blue seems like something that was an incredibly meaningful labor of love for the musicians. They have expressed a great deal of reverence for the album and the musicians who created it, however, how necessary it is as a recording will remain to be seen.

I haven’t really spoken about the music, which may actually prove to be my point in the end. The group, Peter Evans (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto sax), Ron Stabinsky (piano), Moppa Elliott (bass), Kevin Shea (drummer) are all top notch, versatile and creative musicians. The music needs no introduction here (if it does … hi reader, meet Kind of Blue), it's wonderful and timeless, and features solos that are worthy of being transcribed, studied, and played. But as a recording, my feelings are in line with what Greg Applegate wrote about the album on his blog “If you buy this one, it should not be because it is something new. It is most emphatically something NOT NEW.” Also, read the write up in The Atlantic as well, it gives some great context to the album. They say, "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."

In summary, I am going with my labor of love theory. It’s not an album that is pushing boundaries, but it is a piece made for discussion and for raising some fine existential questions about what is jazz and where does it go from here.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue (Hot Cup, 2014) **

By Stefan Wood

Let's cut to the chase:  Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Blue is a note for note reiteration of Miles Davis' landmark jazz album, Kind of Blue.  The bands members:  Peter Evans (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto and tenor sax), Ron Stabinsky (piano), Moppa Elliott (bass), and Kevin Shea (drums) have subsumed their own identities to recreate, in as exacting a manner as possible, the Miles Davis group that created the original album.  The question one might ask is -- why?  What is the point, especially if it isn't a reinterpretation, when one can just buy the original?  Anticipating this, the response can be found in the liner notes, which is an essay written by Jorge Luis Borges on Pierre Menard, an early 20th century writer who spent a good portion of his life recreating chapters of Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote.

Quoting from the essay:  “Thinking, meditating, imagining,” he also wrote me, “are not anomalous acts—they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some doctor universalis thought, is to confess our own languor, or our own barbarie. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be.”

The act of recreating the process that led to the making of the novel through the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.  Menard wanted to re experience the novel by channeling Cervantes through himself to create chapters of the book.  Are we to infer from this that MOPDTK, by channelling Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, they have created Kind of Blue?  There is little need to describe the playing on the album, there are no deviations, no signature MOPDTK traits that appear.  It is as if one is listening to Kind of Blue.  But this is not to say that Evans is as good as Miles, or Irabagon Coltrane.  They aren't.  I don't think that is the point. There are differences in the subtleties of the playing; the life experiences are too different.  It is a testament to their skills as musicians that they do evoke the mood and the feel of the album.  This exercise is similar to Gus Van Sant's frame by frame recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."  But, as a listener and a potential buyer of this album, is it worth it?  My rating gives you my answer.


Fergus said...

This is a very philosophical work, poststructuralist to be specific. Is this "their" "intention" (whatever these terms may mean)? Derrida and Miles would probably both chuckle at this repetition (of a repetition...), and maybe for the same reason.

Can I possibly say, with no tongue in cheek, that this is "essential jazz listening"? Perhaps MOPDTK are leading us to believe that this is what essence sounds like: alluring, beautiful, fragile, stolen, worthless, deceased.

Colin Green said...

Borges' "essay" is in fact a fiction (it was published in a collection of that name). There was no Pierre Menard who rewrote Don Quixote line for line. It's one of the great short stories of modernism, and can be read here, though the footnotes and text are a bit scrambled. Better still, get his Collected Fictions:

I was also nonplussed by the frame by frame colour remake of Psycho, though you do get the end title music by Bill Frisell.

Colin Green said...

I’ve just re-read the Borges, written with the true pedantry of a real academic essay. Perhaps the most important passage is this:

“It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

“. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. “

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

“. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.”

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.”

Though identical, they are not the same. Why? The brilliance of Borges’ essay is in an idea; executing that idea is rather pointless, and could only genuinely be achieved with the written word. Inevitably, a film or musical recreation will contain differences, however subtle, as with different performances of a music score. In fairness, I imagine that Mostly Other People Do the Killing are not simply trying to illustrate Borges’ point, and it could be that it is in those subtleties that the interest lies (or not, as the case may be).

And here’s a link to Frisell’s contribution to Psycho:

Stef said...

The critical reception of the album, including the reviews here, and the comments, demonstrate that the album delivers the goods :to disorient listeners. And to make them think and reflect on the essence of music and the creative process and historical value. Is it stolen? Of course not, how can you repaint the Mona Lisa, call it Mona Lisa (or Gioconda if you want), and hope that nobody will notice? Miles Davis' iconic album was probably their best bet at getting the trick done. The only difference is of course in the creative intent. The original signified a major shift in how music was thought of, the current copy will only be a footnote in jazz history, albeit one you can enjoy for what it is : a technical feat, as much fun to listen to as the original, and slightly disorienting this year's listeners, but probably with a short shelf life. That being said, I love it just for that.

Antonio said...

I think that the questions this album raises are quite important. Like Moppa said in one interview, it all boils down to "What is jazz?".

Another aspect is that it definitely is a provocative work which challenges those jazz conservatives and conservationists that cannot fathom anything past post-bop (think Wynton Marsalis) as well as the "casual jazz" crowd that listens to jazz out of snobbery.

In any case, I feel this is a very important, as Fergus said, philosophical work. While being superficially simple and trivial, it is multilayered in its approach. So, yeah, there's no reason to buy this album from a purely musical point of view, but I think we can all agree that we, "deep listeners", tend to observe music from different, non-sonic perspectives as well.

Colin Green said...

Or, to continue the literary references, one might agree with Proust’s observation that a work in which there are theories is like an object with its price tag still on it.

Colin Green said...

“Why not re-record Kind of Blue, not as an interpretation but as faithfully as possible to the sounds of the original recording? Discuss.”

That seems to do the job. Why actually bother to go ahead and do it? No doubt, it involved considerable skill, but like Dr. Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, it’s not so much that it’s been done well, but that it’s been done at all. Surely it’s significant that no one is discussing the music itself but rather the ideas and theories that lie behind the project – conceptual issues, all of which could have been raised in discussing the above question.

And I’m utterly at a loss to understand how the project raises any particularly interesting issues about that deeply uninteresting question “What is Jazz?”. Jazz involves improvisation, but there’s no improvising here, just copying other people’s improvising. Therefore, does it count as jazz? Answer: it counts as a copy of other people improvising on a jazz recording.

The only thing that can be said against the above is that the “issues” would never have been discussed if the band had simply posted the above question online rather than gone through with it. Since I’m of the view that Borges’ essay is probably enough to raise the kind of genuinely interesting questions that arise, I’m not sure the project was really worth doing, except possibly as an exercise for the musicians themselves. For the listening public, not at all. I’d rather sit down and listen to the original rather than a copy in order to spot the differences. I’m not that geeky.

Antonio said...

Colin (and everyone else, actually), take a look at this interview with Moppa Elliott:

I think it clears up some things and explains why they did it, their thought process. It's a good interview.

Stefan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan said...

I regret not being able to amend my review with the fact that the Borges essay was a work of fiction, a brilliant one at that.

Antonio, thanks for the link. I get what they are trying to do. I could throw in Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," where MOPTK takes the aura of Kind of Blue and applies it to their own execution. Honestly, though, it is an attention getting effort but not worth owning.

Colin Green said...

Thanks for the link Antonio. I’ve now had a chance to read the interviews.

Let me say at the outset that I have considerable respect for all these musicians, and that I’ve enjoyed their other work, collectively and with others. For me, there still remain a number of problems, however.

I acknowledge that this project was an instructive exercise for the musicians themselves, and I’m prepared to accept that it might have some influence on how they play in the future. Similarly, if I were to copy out passages from the plays of Shakespeare, this could affect how I write – something Arthur Miller used to do – though I suspect that lacking any significant talent, there wouldn’t be much difference in my case.

I’m a little surprised by some of the observations that frankly, seem mere platitudes. The fact that to a greater or lesser extent, every musician has a distinct way of playing which can’t be exactly replicated, however hard one tries, is hardly newsworthy. Nor is the fact that every musician (even the same musician) plays a score slightly differently and that no two performances are identical, due to temperament, fingering, acoustics etc. This is true for every musician, no matter what the music. I can’t believe that they didn’t know this already. If there’s a philosophical point it’s that one can’t step into the same river twice. The Greeks knew that.

It’s said: “The sound is clearly jazz, but because of the process that went into it, it magically becomes “not jazz””. A few years ago it was discovered that the husband of the pianist Joyce Hatto had slightly doctored other pianists’ recordings, and released them under her name. Performances that had been thought of as hers were discovered not to be hers, much to the embarrassment of some reviewers who’d reviewed the original and “copy” recordings. There was nothing “magical” about this. I’m not sure if one could describe the OPDTK album as jazz or not. It all depends on the context of the question, and why does it matter?

As to the parallels with this project and Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, clearly, they aren’t the same, and if one wants to attack Wynton Marsalis’ views on Jazz (and I have no real sympathy with them) you should do so by attacking your opponent’s case at its strongest, not a lame caricature that can be easily rebuffed.

I’m afraid I remain of the view that other than for their own purposes, this would have been best left as a “thought experiment”.

And Stef, if I wanted to get disorientated, I’d head for the nearest bar, which it being a Friday I shall probably be doing later today, where I’ll bend the ear of anyone who’ll listen with what we’ve been discussing, before I’m thrown out as a bar stool bore. Cheers!

Antonio said...

The thing is, I actually agree with both Colin and you. The merit of this record, if there is any, is not in the music itself and, in light of that, I think that it maybe shouldn't have been graded at all.

Antonio said...

BTW, Colin, your final comment is actually spot on. All I wanted to say is that this whole endeavour is not completely senseless, at least to me.

Hope you find someone interested in the debate at the bar. Let us know if they provide any additional insights. :-)

Stefan said...

Antonio, unfortunately, as a reviewer, I have to put a grade up. It is the expectation people have when visiting this site. It's a compromise.

Anonymous said...

wow, the more I read this site the less I want to listen. I think I'll go back to listening.

Colin Green said...

I learnt a few things at the bar:

(1) Don’t use the subject of this discussion as a chat-up line. For some reason, women don't go for it.

(2) Singing free improv to “Ghostbusters” on the karaoke is fun

(3) Drinking on your own isn’t much fun.

For some reason, quite a few vampires out tonight, but in true Buffy fashion I managed to deal with them.

And so to bed.

Anonymous said...

If, on the other hand, anyone fancies a good old-fashioned jazz album that includes fine versions of two of the numbers from 'Kind of Blue', I can unreservedly recommend 'Stompin with Savoy' by the Marc Copland Quintet.

Strings said...

Jon Irabagon is amazing on the sax. So intricate with so many layers to his melodies.

Anonymous said...

I prefer their question 'what is jazz?' to 'is this jazz?'

And I see the point MOPDTK is making. 'What is jazz... if not improvisation?'

Normally MOPDTK albums mimic covers of great jazz albums, music is mostly improvisation, radical and schooled. 'Blue' says Blue on blue background, and it's 'Blue' because there is nothing 'kind of' about it, it is a note by note rendition.

So, MOPDTK seem to be asking (probably Marsalis): This is your concept of jazz at its most radical. Is it worthwhile?

Very strong question, important, yes. But, well, you know... I wish them all the best in their dialogue.

The album however - to the best of my knowledge the first one of its kind - proved it worthwhile to me.

Not that I only want to listen to perfect renditions of great jazz albums from now on.

Score and twenty versions of Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come? By alumni from 30 or so best jazz conservatories. Who knows? Seeing Nefertiti performed live, by master musicians? I'd love to do that.

Maybe MOPDTK are sounding warning about the academia - and I think MOPDTK have a lot of first hand experience of jazz academia - that it can become rigid when improvisation is at stake.

Yet, none of that would silence other jazz, so I see no problem there.

Be that all as it may, this time it worked. One, it is only a first of its kind. Two, Kind of Blue, it is a great album, after all, it truly is... and Three, these guys, they play it so well, it is not aping, they are wonderful musicians, and the two things together make it work.

I found it a great listening experience, if you do not think too much about it. Imagine, for instance they were a Japanese band, and it will all somehow be OK (at least out of Japan).