Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Blue: Mostly Other People Do The Killing's Transcription Homework Assignment

Mostly Other People Do The Killing.....I mean, wait.....
Mostly Other People Do The Killing is quite a provocative name for a jazz group. I've been aware of them for a few years; I have heard a few samples from their earlier recordings( "This Is Our Moosic, "Forty Fort", and "Shamokin!!!"". Clearly, it's not all about the hype; these guys can play, and they combine a post modern sense of humor with a solid grasp on virtuosity and the jazz tradition.  I think this group is a great example of where jazz is today and how conservatory trained musicians can think outside the box in order to find their niche.

It was brought to my attention that Mostly Other People Do The Killing recently released "Blue", which is not a tribute to Joni Mitchell, but rather an attempt at a note for note reproduction of "Kind Of Blue", which is probably trumpeter Miles Davis' most famous album and one of the most important as well as popular jazz albums in history. I was curious about the project. I will say off the bat that I did not purchase the album, I listened to samples on Itunes, which many of us do before making the decision to buy music( if you actually still buy music......anyone?). I decided not to buy it; instead, I download some of Mostly Other People Do The Killing's earlier work and study it a bit more. I'm not saying that I won't purchase it in the future, but I have reasoning why and I'll get to that later.

I am very conflicted about "Blue"; the clips I heard were impressive, and the jazz educator side of me is always impressed with the technical ability to hear and reproduce solos(especially since many of my students have real challenges with that kind of activity. I wasn't going to mention that one of my student groups couldn't name the musicians on "Kind Of Blue," which is rather disturbing, to say the least.) Transcribing solos and trying to play along with the recording and trying to match every nuance is a great tool in jazz education; however, even the most "derivative" musicians rarely try to perform a transcribed jazz performance and pass it off as their own. ( I'm not saying that MOPDTK is trying to do that, exactly.) It is a little odd that musicians would spend so much time on something that they would never present in a performance; in this way, transcriptions are like etudes- they are studies. You can't play the entire solo of  McCoy Tyner's on Passion Dance whien you play Passion Dance. You could play part of it, you can be influenced by it, but you can't play the whole thing. EVEN IF YOU CAN! IF YOU CAN, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO! In this way, jazz is like comedy- young comedians listen to the greats, but they MUST create their own material to be legitimate. Without Richard Pryor, there would be no Eddie Murphy, and without Eddie Murphy, there would be no Dave Chappelle. BUT, Dave Chappelle would NEVER release a comedy special called "Live On The Sunset Strip" or "Delirious." Why not? Because he has more than enough of his own jokes, and doing something like this would be an enormous waste of time and energy!

I read Nate Chinen's review of the CD, and he address some of the reasoning behind the project, and his own take on it seems just as conflicted as mine, although in the end he heartily endorses "Blue". Again, these are great players from a technical and creative standpoint. However, in my mind, this album has GIMMICK written all over it. The sad thing is, gimmicks work. This is especially true in the entertainment world, the music world, and the jazz world. Most of the time, it isn't about the notes, about the sound, about the artistic message. It's about the gimmick, the image, the sound byte, the selling point. It's not, "How can we make great music that will reach people and take an art form to a higher level?" It's, " how can we trick people into buying our product?" I've tried to stay away from gimmicks as a musician, mostly because it doesn't interest me, usually seems cheesy to me, and most importantly because I haven't found a gimmick that has made me rich and successful.....

The paradox of transcribing solos and playing them along with the recording is that it's nearly impossible to sound exactly like the musician who originally played the solo. It is impressive that MOPDTK  on "Blue" sounds at times exactly like Davis and crew. But even so, it's still not close enough. The recording quality is obviously different. As soon as trumpeter Peter Evans starts playing, you know it isn't Miles Davis. Maybe because he isn't playing on a 1947 Martin Committee trumpet? Is he using a Heim 2 mouthpiece with a deep V cup? Did they record on the same Steinway that was at Columbia's 30th Street studios? (I played that piano when I was recording at Clinton Studios years ago. It was a great piano, but I didn't sound like Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly, oddly enough.) I'm willing to engage in a "Kind Of Blue" challenge to test my own ears, if anybody wants to facilitate that.

I'm not saying that "Blue" is disrespectful of the tradition; indeed, I don't think MOPDTK would have spent all that energy on this if they didn't love that music. However, I would rather see them play their own music. This is why I'm not going to buy "Blue." I won't buy it, but clearly, I've already bought into the hype, and even this little blog will give them more press, so in the end, isn't that what matters? In an era when no one is buying music, it's not surprising that anyone would resort to extreme tactics.

In the end, the existence of a project like this reaffirms my belief that jazz is about innovation through imitation. Check out the greats, but in the end, do it your own way. MOPDTK, as evidence by their earlier recordings, already did this in spades. I guess they had a lot of extra free time to make "Blue". But I can't help what are some other records that warrant note for note reproduction:

A Love Supreme?
Birth Of The Cool?
Way Out West?
Duke Ellington Live At Newport?
Black Codes(from The Underground?
No Jacket Required?
Songs in The Key Of Life?
The Chronic?
Enter The Wu Tang(36 Chambers)?

Don't be offended, MOPDTK, but when my son's Bar Mitzvah rolls around, I'll know where to find a "Kind Of Blue" cover band.

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