I Am Kind of Blue: The Tradition of Imitation to its Logical Conclusion
Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. -Elaine Scarry, “On Beauty and Being Just.”
Recently, I have been inspired to weigh-in on the “Blue” firestorm started by MOPDTK, (Mostly Other People Do the Killing are releasing a note-by-note recreation of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”) as well as the outcry and knee-jerk reactions of many in the jazz community. As a friend of Moppa Elliott for 30 plus years, I feel particularly qualified to share some strong opinions on the matter. I was there during the late nights when the group members were hashing out this concept many years ago, so I have had a longtime to contemplate it as well.
I anxiously awaited to hear “Blue” as Moppa Elliott and Mostly Other People Do the Killing were meticulously creating it; editing, recording, redoing….trying to get it right. Finally when it was mastered I requested a blindfold test; I couldn’t wait to see if I could detect the original. I was correct 4/5 times (they did a superb job on Flamenco Sketches.) How could I tell them apart? The real Coltrane simply gave me chills. It was instant and quite amazing. And Miles. This led me to the central and overall lesson I believe lies within the work “Blue”: YOU CANNOT BE ANYONE ELSE. It is impossible.
My blindfold experience solidified more then ever this notion. The real irony at work here is that which MOPDTK was brave enough to take to the final level: the love-affair jazz has with the tradition of imitation as an end. “You’ve been checking out Cannonball, huh?” is a typical term of endearment following a blazing Adderley imitator’s solo, far from a plagiaristic accusation. The criminal here is neither aware of their thievery nor guilty of accepting the praise of Cannonball’s work. Self-awareness seems to be a widespread problem in jazz.
Is it ok, even praiseworthy, to record Coltrane tunes and imitate him precisely, even play portions of his solo, but perhaps change the order of licks? This type of emulation has become the gold standard of jazz musician achievement. Musicians spend their lives trying to be Coltrane. Saxophonist Evan Parker recently said on a radio broadcast on Trane’s birthday, “We all wanted to BE Coltrane. When we figured out we couldn’t, we had to be ourselves.” In Mr. Parker’s case, he took a brief, specific period of Coltrane, even down to a single recording, and made an entire musical world for himself. As far as I know, THIS was the original tradition of jazz.
Where specifically is the line drawn? At what point is copying gone too far? About 15 years ago I learned the entire epic “Sonnymoon for Two” solo from the Vanguard as improvised by Sonny Rollins. I would go into the club, call a Bb blues, and play most of the solo, to the praise of the musicians present. This imitation clearly is quite accepted. But what if I recorded the same tunes, learned all the solos, but just played the material in a different order? Still cool? Jazz police here yet? Finally what if I re-created Live at the Vanguard? Suddenly blasphemous? The consistent knee-jerk reaction of social media folks is chalk-full of this hypocrisy. Sadly I would estimate the majority of the musical output from many who proclaim MOPTDK as “idiots” and “blasphemers” would fall into the “tradition of imitation” category. Calling the kettle black- they’ve been doing what MOPDTK just did their entire musical lives.
It is quite apparent that MOPDTK, as well as the other members of the group, have produced unique and original work for many years. The notion that the group is using “Kind of Blue” for profit is laughably ludicrous. Indeed, Mr. Elliott will be taking a loss financially when considering the work that obviously went into this. The studio time bill alone would presumably show a debt impossibly relieved by CD sales! This was no 2 hour blowing session (this time around anyway.)
As a response to many ignorant comments on social media about MOPDTK members and their creative abilities, one doesn’t need to go any further then trumpeter Peter Evans’ work (who is truly the Master of my generation):
I find myself returning to “Blue” time and time again. I’m quite interested and fascinated by the listening experience. Unexpectedly, I listen to “Blue” more then any other MOPDTK album by far (this could mean a lot of things, beyond the scope of this blog.) Just wait until I return to “Kind Of Blue,” and I’m upset that Coltrane and Cannonball simply haven’t been checking out one of the hottest cats around, Jon Irabagon!
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Live At St. Stephens
I couldn’t have anticipated how well yesterday’s recording went with my mentor David Liebman at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wilkes Barre Pa. It’s truly incredible how he swooped in and literally annihilated my music without ever seeing it. This might have been in all seriousness the greatest day of my life! Special thanks to Ron Stabinsky (piano) and Tony Marino (bass) for their tireless dedication to getting the music right. Playing and gigging with them this summer really set the stage for what was a great concert and hopefully an equally fulfilling next record. My parents, relatives, old teachers, and friends were also there to enjoy and experience a truly holy day…Trane’s 86th birthday! (which Lieb would not let you forget! Haha!!)
A Great Live Performance
Last Friday, I played a wonderful performance with Neil Shah at St. Stephens’ Church in Wilkes Barre, Pa. The acoustics were ideal for our chromatic aesthetic. A small but attentive crowd of old friends welcomed us, allowing an exploration of both new and old material. Neil has a unique way of freshly interpreting my pieces, taking them in a direction I didn’t originally conceive nor expect in performance. I look forward to playing with Neil at my solo CD release party in Brooklyn in March, and also recording the material with Neil soon!
Ives did everything before anyone did anything
Charles Ives did everything before anyone did anything: quater-tones, multiple simultaneous melodies, tonality, tonal chromaticism, non-tonal chromaticism (Symphony 4!!!), poly-rhythms, simultaneous tempos, editing works throughout his whole-life. Giving performer freedom of interpretation (improvisation) – Piano Sonata 2. Deep existential spiritualism – “The Unanswered Question”. Programmatic/multiple tonalities/ – “Central Park in the Dark”> Irony – “end of “Concord Sonata,” use of flute in piano work (and viola earlier for like 2 seconds!!!). Quoting – not due to lack of creativity but instead to embellish (read ‘improve’) familiar American diddies. Humor – final chord of “Symphony 2”; all his patriotic usage patriotic capitalist by day, uncompromising composer by night.
The King of Kings.
Evan Parker live/Coltrane’s logical successor
Category:Dreams and the Supernatural
I saw Evan Parker at the Stone Sunday night . . . a room filled with great improvisor’s, all bowing in homage to the master. He alternated between solo soprano and solo tenor saxophone pieces. Seeing someone on his level (actually, there isnt any one else) is both humbling and inspiring. If you haven’t heard any recordings of him, i suggest you do so ASAP; it will change your life. Indeed, the logical extension of Coltrane.