1959. Miles Davis took a quintet into a studio in New York to record new music for what became the first entirely modal jazz album, Kind of Blue. In the album’s liner notes, pianist Bill Evans says that Davis gave the band little time to rehearse, and only brief sketches of the scales and melody lines that would guide their collective improvisations. As he recalled: “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates.” Kind of Blue has become, indisputably, one of the best-loved of all time.
1978. I was twelve years old, and walking with an older boy, a guitarist of unverified talent. Passing the Women’s Institute hut at the edge of our village, we were surprised to hear my favourite band in there, running through the changes to their best known song, “Stairway to Heaven”. After weighing the chances of an actual Led Zeppelin rehearsal going down at my local WI, I said something like: “They’re good”. “Yes,” my friend conceded: “But it’s one thing to copy something; the hard part is making that shit up in the first place.” I went home, and noted those words in my diary.
2013. Moppa Elliott took Mostly Other People Do The Killing into the studio to recreate Kind of Blue. Later, he’d tell the Wall Street Journal: “Before people get too worked up over this, they need to realize that our album (Blue, released on Elliott’s Hot Cup) is a copy, not a clone—an object designed to reaffirm what people already love about ‘Kind of Blue’ and to highlight what we could and couldn’t pull off. That’s where the art is—getting people to think about the original by listening harder to the differences.”
That said, there’s nothing I could tell you about the music on Blue that you don’t already know, if you know Kind of Blue. The standout moments on Kind of Blue—the imperious entry of Coltrane’s sax 4:30 into “Freddie Freeloader”, for example—all happen predictably on cue, and disappoint every time with their lack of emotional bite. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon does hit that entry just so, but his subsequent soloing sounds more like David Sanborne than himself, let alone either Cannonball or ‘Trane.
In that Wall Street Journal interview, Elliott emphasised how meticulous the group’s approach had been: “the smallest errors called for retakes.” And he gave telling insights into his methodology, noting that Davis’ bassist Paul Chambers “had ways of getting himself out of awkward positions. If he found he was too high up in the bass’s register, he’d mute notes and articulate with his right hand by thumping on a string without pitch content or by playing eighth notes as if bouncing in place to keep the ear occupied as he came down to where he needed to be.”
As curious and conceptually compelling as this near-fanatical degree of copyism may be, the resulting music is as close to cloned as possible without the extraction of DNA, and the results are as soulless as a Stepford wife.
That Wall Street Journal article also quotes drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole surviving member of the Kind of Blue sextet, as saying of MOPDTK: “These guys are proficient—I thought they were us at first—but I don’t hear the human part, the individual sound and feel I lived with on those sessions.” And that’s the thing. Cobb goes on to say: “But, hey, classical has been doing this for centuries—playing the notes someone else wrote.” But he’s wrong on that count. No orchestra goes into a recording studio to copy an already documented performance down to its smallest individuating characteristics, rather, to interpret a composition in new and revealing ways, or at least refine some aspect of its expressivity.
There’s a brittle, plaintively expressive quality to the playing of trumpeter Peter Evans that stands out on Blue as the album’s most rewarding aspect, and that’s precisely because it seems at odds with the burnished tonality Miles Davis achieved on Kind of Blue. If I ever listen to Blue again, it will be to puzzle over that; to listen hard to the differences, just as Elliott hoped I might. But I won’t listen to it again, and Peter Evans has recently announced that he is leaving MOPDTK to concentrate on other things, presumably including his own Quartet and Quintet.
Both of those groups include the pianist Ron Strabinsky, who here shadows the original parts of both Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. Strabinsky played on MOPDTK’s last album, Red Hot, a collection of Elliott originals based on late 20s and early 30s jazz and blues, and the start of the group’s (hopefully brief) segue from pastiche presentation (e.g. re-staging the cover of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert for their own The Coimbra Concert), into pastiche performance.
All of MOPDTK’s music until Red Hot was fully invested with the inspired creativity that Blue—an indulgence, nothing more—so signally lacks. In praising Slippery Rock (Hot Cup, 2012), I hailed the group as “ferociously tight” and possessing a “collective lack of inhibition”, so it’s sad indeed that they’ve said upfront: “Even though we’re celebrating the release of Blue, we won’t be playing any of the music from that album live, for hopefully obvious reasons”. God forbid, the contingencies and exigencies of road work might give this stock repertoire a new lease of life.
Peter Evans trumpet; Jon Irabagon alto and tenor saxophones; Ron Stabinsky piano; Moppa Elliott bass; Kevin Shea drums.