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!