Jazz Notes

Jazz Notes, 1/23: Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s “Blue”

Moppa Elliot, Composer of Kind of Blue

blue1MOSTLY OTHER PEOPLE DO THE KILLING – Blue (Hot Cup ’14): Pretty sure it’s impossible to detail what this painstaking note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is meant to signify. Bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliot made it pretty clear in an interview that there are all sorts of elements at play here and that the album isn’t really about any one thing. It’s a mercurial little trinket for sure, an imitation so close to the original that were it not for the few obvious gaffes (or are those intentional?) on “All Blues” I doubt I would have noticed the difference had it just been on as background music.

And that’s part of the purpose, I think. Kind of Blue is such a staple of American music—and, because it’s jazz, a piece of art appropriated by the bourgeoisie, at least in Elliot’s eyes—that its greatness is assumed due to the reputation of its creator and the decades of accompanying acclaim. So unless you’re a certified jazz nut, it’s doubtful the intricacies strike as defining hallmarks of the sound. Anyone only vaguely familiar with Kind of Blue could easily be tricked (as I no doubt would have been) for mistaking the doppelganger for the real McCoy, and if that’s the case, it starts raising metaphysical questions about what jazz is. Can’t merely be the sound, because Blue most assuredly sounds like jazz, but not one piece of it is improvised (save for the minor, unintentional slip-ups), though if the only thing keeping Blue from not being authentic jazz is that it’s not original and not improvised, then the qualifiers for what makes jazz real are awfully rhetorical. Why isn’t it the case, for example, that Kind of Blue ceases to be jazz when a bunch of conservatory-trained dweebs simulate it almost flawlessly? What difference would it make if you could discern the slight dissimilarities between them? To top it all off, the band cleverly titled their take simply Blue, almost as if to suggest their version is more authentic since, well, Davis’ is only called Kind of Blue. Kind of. Sorta. Maybe.

Perhaps part of this puzzle’s solution lies in the liner notes. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is printed in full, a faux-literary review penned by Borges himself regarding the brief but wonderful career of Pierre Menard, which includes funny, foolish endeavors such as designing an updated and improved version of chess that eliminates a rook’s pawn, only to reject his own proposal, or “constructing a poetic vocabulary which would not be synonymous or periphrases of those which make up our everyday language.” Essentially, a language to rectify the deficiencies of our language. Menard’s greatest achievement, in the fictional Borges’ opinion, is a word-for-word recreation of Don Quixote, wherein the author does not simply sit down and copy the text, but rather goes through the impossible task of becoming Miguel de Cervantes—as it would be “less arduous to him… than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard”—so that he may organically recompose the book. Borges concludes, after examining different fragments, that “Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer,” and goes on to compare two identical lines, praising Menard and castigating Cervantes.

In this way, Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Blue does the same; to merely copy Kind of Blue would have been to burn a CD and slap their name on it, but the years-long drudgery of transcribing every note, of recognizing that Moppa Elliot’s bass performance will always be different from Paul Chambers not because of something as frivolous as talent, but because they are different people—that Chambers moved to New York City as a young twenty-something in the 1950s and happened to find himself alongside the greatest jazzster of all time, and that Elliot did not—is to recognize that Blue, like Borges, is asking whether Kind of Blue signifies the same way as it did in 1959, or whether Don Quixote could possibly mean the same thing in the 1600s as it did during World War II. The product may be the same, but the means of getting there, the circumstances surrounding the recordings of both, and all that’s come since is completely different. If we’re so swift to dismiss this playful jab as nothing but hipster posturing, we will have to reexamine why Kind of Blue is held above all else as the pinnacle of jazz. After all, Kind of Blue received a rather muted response upon first release. It’s only in the gap—that peculiar hole of time—that it’s come to mean to us what it does.

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