Posted on | October 22, 2014 | 2 Comments
by Nou Dadoun
Last summer when I first saw the press release for the note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis‘ legendary recording Kind of Blue, I was naturally intrigued. Who better to take on an iconic album than the reigning iconoclasts of contemporary creative music?
Mostly Other People Do the Killing – MOPDtK!
The four core members – saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Peter Evans, drummer Kevin Shea and head conceptualist (and bassist) Moppa Elliot are incredible musicians who are able to shape-shift through styles effortlessly. They’ve done releases in the styles of 70s pop jazz (Slippery Rock in 2012) and in trad jazz (Red Hot in 2013) the latter with the addition of Ron Stabinsky on the piano. When I saw the quartet at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 2010, they slid one piece into another at one point breaking into an extended Chet Baker/West coast groove on All The Things You Are before slipping back into their intriguing musical deconstructions. They’ve always had humour and subversion at the heart of their artistry – for a time all of Moppa Elliot’s compositions were named after places in Philadelphia (Heart’s Content, Drainlick etc.) and their earlier album covers were parodies of classic jazz albums: Roy Haynes‘ Out of the Afternoon, Ornette Coleman‘s This is Our Music, and Keith Jarrett‘s Koln Concert. The name of the group is taken from a Leon Theremin quote in which he explained how he could (morally) live in Stalin’s regime!
Musically they do a phenomenal job on the resulting recording Blue, Stabinsky returns in the role of Bill Evans (with a cameo as Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader) and Jon Irabagon plays both tenor and alto convincingly as John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley respectively. I would think it unlikely that a casual listener would notice the difference and in JazzTimes, reviewer Nate Chinen puts the original and reproduction side by side and finds the similarities beguiling!
Judge for yourself on All Blues:
What I didn’t expect was the visceral hostile reaction to the actual release Blue which came out last week on their own Hot Cup label. They’ve been accused of plagiarism, fraud, charlatanism and racism! The Miles Davis estate went so far as to issue a statement to “clarify that “Blue” the ultimate tribute by the band Mostly Other People Do The Killing, is not supported by us, nor done with our cooperation or participation.”
Not all comments have been negative – Ethan Iverson in his Do The Math blog recognized it uniquely as “conceptual art with the heart of jazz fully in the frame”. He not only spoke of the concept admiringly but added that he wished that he’d thought of it first!
Like all good conceptual art, MOPDtK’s stunning accomplishment can be taken on many levels and I wanted to explore some of the ideas – the impressions – that this recording Blue suggests.
In a sense, Blue is a tribute album taken to extremes – what could be a higher tribute to a piece of art than the attempt to reproduce it faithfully, in essence saying that there is no way to improve on it. Not surprisingly Blue is not the first tribute album to do this – in 1976 Todd Rundgren released his recording Faithful which attempted reproductions of various (production-intensive) pop tunes by the Yardbirds, Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Listen to his version of Good Vibrations:
In fact, until I saw the cover of MOPDtK’s Blue I hadn’t realized how closely it matched the cover of Faithful! I still wonder if the similarity was coincidental.
Of course, swing musicians in the 40s often had to learn and memorize the solos that they had recorded spontaneously in the studio to play in concert because that was what their audiences wanted to hear. Dexter Gordon claimed that when he first met Wardell Gray, Gray was playing Lester Young solos note-for-note. Even today there are repertory bands that play (unironic) exact duplicates of historical recordings.
Some reviewers have mentioned Blue as a poke in the eye to the notion that jazz is America’s “classical music” – the logical extension of the idea that there is a canon of classic performances and recordings which are worthy of study and reproduction to the extent that modern practitioners cannot improve on them. At the other end is Wayne Horvitz‘s approach that pays tribute by trying to recreate “how it makes you feel” rather than any notes or styles. Other negative reviewers have made disparaging remarks reminiscent of criticisms of sampling (suggesting cheating or getting away with something) which conveniently sidesteps the talent required to do a credible reproduction of a recording like Kind of Blue.
The Quixotic Quest
When I read that the liner notes were written by Jorge Luis Borges, it immediately suggested another aspect – Borges of course being the blind Argentinian conceptualist and writer who wrote about infinite libraries, memory paradoxes and labyrinths. Umberto Eco paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by casting the villain as a blind librarian. Unfortunately Borges died in 1986, so it was unlikely that he actively collaborated in this recording. As it turns out, Borges was indeed a fan of American jazz so it is certainly possible that he might have heard the original Kind of Blue!
The connection was confirmed when I learned that the liner notes consisted of one of my favourite Borges stories/essays – Pierre Menard, The Author of The Quixote. In the essay, an anonymous critic describes Pierre Menard as an author who, after after abandoning his attempt to immerse himself in the world of Cervantes to write his version of Don Quixote, performs the audacious act of writing a portion of the book through his twentieth-century experiences producing, against all odds, an exact word for word, line for line duplicate of the original!
At this point we enter the labyrinth because Borges’ point (one of them) is that the words on the page are not just the words on the page – the finger that points at the moon is not the moon. Coincidentally, I’d been thinking about this earlier this year – I’d read a couple of books that explored in different ways the relationship, in some ways the implicit contract, between an author and a reader – to generalize a producer and a consumer or, more at hand, a musician and a listener. (Recommended – Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being!)
One way of thinking about this relationship is that the artist puts aspects of their world into their art and the receiver of that art brings their world view into accepting, interpreting and appreciating that art. At a superficial level, think of musical “quotes” that some performers like to drop into their solos – of course, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins are famous for this. Closer to home, on Cory Weeds recent release As Of Now, Harold Mabern‘s solo on his composition Rakin’ and Scrapin’ takes a extended side excursion into Steely Dan‘s Do It Again. If the listener knows that tune, they will connect to the performance in a far different way than if they don’t.
As another example, some readers of this essay will see the title and smile to themselves, others will pass right over it.
The relationship becomes that much more lop-sided when through the printed page or the medium of recordings, the worlds of the producer and consumer are separated by great periods of time. For an extended discussion of the philosophy of music and the distinctions of recorded music from live music (and indeed other arts), see The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa by Evan Eisenberg.
And this brings us to the point of the Borges story; the passage that has stuck with me since my first reading of the Menard story many years ago, and I think the one that is the key to interpreting Blue is “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous his detractors will say but ambiguousness is richness.)”
The idea being expressed here is that the richness comes from changes in the reader, not in the author whose worked is being reproduced exactly. I recently read John LeCarre‘s late ’60s thriller The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – the knowledge that I have that the Berlin Wall was torn down in the 1980s completely changes how I interpret the events and what I take away from the story. Is it possible today to see a 1990s film that sweeps across the New York skyline without noticing and reflecting on the twin towers of the World Trade Center? Borges’ anonymous critic extends the thought in the essay by saying that now when he reads portions of Quixote that Menard did not reproduce, he hears them nonetheless in Menard’s voice!
Likewise a modern listener brings a completely different sensibility to Kind of Blue than a listener who would have heard it on first release back in 1959. It was an experiment in modal improvisation spearheaded by a musician who was (yet again) searching for a new sound and a new approach to improvisation, not the aural wallpaper that people put on in the background at cocktail parties. The reproduction invites us to throw out that baggage and listen again with fresh ears to the solos that were created tentatively in unfamiliar contexts.
Tellingly, Nate Chinen’s review in JazzTimes states that “In some appreciable way, they even helped me hear the old album anew.” This certainly seems to have been part of the intention behind doing the recording!
Final thoughts that arise are differences in the technology of reproduction between written words and recorded sound – some explored in the aforementioned book The Recording Angel. Did Andre Menard reproduce his Quixote in long hand as Cervantes likely did? Do we think of different type-settings of the Quixote as actually being different? An eReader edition?
Over the years, I’ve owned at least eight different “editions” of Kind of Blue in a number of recording formats, from six-eye Columbia LP to MP3 – are they all the same? To what extent are they different? Do they all convey the intentions of the original artists? Could Miles Davis have foreseen MP3 versions of All Blues? Or a multi-disc, multi-format 50th Anniversary Limited Edition issue? What would Bill Evans have thought about the inclusion of extra discs of studio chatter and false starts?
And what about Don Quixote? I’ve read Cervantes’ version of Don Quixote – I’ve never been able to track down Pierre Menard’s! At least, I think I’ve read it, I don’t read Spanish – I’ve read an English translation. For that matter, are there any readers alive who can read and comprehend 17th Century Castillean Spanish as Cervantes intended? Might he have taken some linguistic solos that inadvertently fell by the wayside through the various transmutations and translations? Similarly, can we think of Blue as a modern translation of Kind of Blue that MOPDtk has produced to include their additional subtle messages of subversion?
As an aside, I’ll make the observation that of course, Borge’s essay Pierre Menard was also originally written in Spanish and so again I’ve only read it in translation. The liner notes to Blue include the information that the translation there is credited to Andrew Hurle copyright 1998 which is different than the translation with which I’m familiar from the Labyrinths collection which was by Anthony Bonner coincidentally done in the early 1960s. Ultimately I found the more recent translation lacked a certain zing, it seemed a little stiff and the rhythm wasn’t quite right.
All I hope is that when Mostly Other People Do the Killing eventually reissue their version of Blue that they include the alternate take of Flamenco Sketches!
The A-Trane on the air since 1986 | CFRO 100.5 FM, Vancouver BC
Fri 2:30-5:30 pm PST | http://coopradio.org/content/trane
Posted on | May 7, 2014 | No Comments
Coastal Jazz & Blues Society today announced the full line-up for its 29th annual TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival which runs from June 20 to July 1 this year.
For complete information visit http://www.coastaljazz.ca.
Posted on | January 31, 2014 | 2 Comments
We are very saddened by the news that Renee Doruyter passed away last night. A talented jazz vocalist, she was also one of the most dedicated supporters of jazz in Vancouver, mainly through the columns she wrote for The Vancouver Province newspaper for many years. A warm and generous woman, her enthusiasm and knowledge contributed immeasurably to Vancouver’s thriving jazz community. She will be greatly missed.
Photo: Brian Nation
Posted on | January 29, 2014 | No Comments
Vancouver’s finest big band leader, composer, and arranger Jill Townsend plans to record an album of the compositions of the late Ross Taggart. This is a huge undertaking and one that could likely result in a masterpiece, judging from Townsend’s last album, tales from the sea, and the band’s many performances over the years. It’s a huge undertaking and also a costly one, so Jill is looking to crowdfund the project via Kickstarter.
Read up on the project and, if you’re inclined, help support the realization of this very worthy enterprise, by visiting the Kickstarter page.
Posted on | January 22, 2014 | No Comments
The Cap Jazz Series presents a Tribute to Dave Brubeck at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday, January 24 @ 8 PM, an homage to the groundbreaking pianist and composer who became one of the best known ambassadors of jazz to the world.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which featured Brubeck on piano and Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, was one of the iconic jazz ensembles of the 1950s and ’60s, making its reputation with college campus recitals, playing in festivals and concert halls all over the world and releasing albums that went platinum.
From day one of his career, Brubeck inspired music lovers across the globe. In a statement read at Brubeck’s funeral, Former President Bill Clinton recalled being “utterly captivated” at age 15 after hearing Brubeck’s quartet in concert and then going home to play “Take Five” until his lips gave out. “I consider myself lucky to have known Dave and to have experienced his music in such a profound way,” Clinton said.
Capilano University’s own jazz masters have created a night honouring Brubeck and his remarkable canon of works.
“A” Band—The “A” Band is the premiere large instrumental ensemble of the Capilano University Jazz Studies program. The “A” band
has performed with jazz artists such as Bob Mintzer, Cedar Walton, Ed Thigpen, Jason Marsalis, Mike Murley, Kevin Turcotte, Seamus Blake, Hugh Fraser, Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Kristin Korb, Nnenna Freelon, Denzal Sinclaire, Ernie Watts and Dee Daniels.
NiteCap—Led by Réjean Marois, NiteCap is the premier Vocal Jazz Ensemble of Capilano University’s Jazz Studies degree program. It is an innovative ensemble with an eclectic approach to musical style that includes material from Renaissance madrigals through contemporary jazz. NiteCap has developed the reputation and level of professionalism that has allowed it to share the stage and garner accolades from such top jazz artists as Ed Thigpen, Kenny Werner, Hugh Fraser, Regina Carter, Kurt Elling and Jane Bunnett.
For more information and to purchase thickets visit http://www.capilanou.ca/blueshorefinancialcentre/Tribute-to-Dave-Brubeck
Posted on | January 20, 2014 | No Comments
The Legacy Jazz Series and Coastal Jazz & Blues Society are presenting the Mike Allen Quartet – Mike Allen (saxophones), Miles Black (piano), Adam Thomas (bass), Julian MacDonough (drums) – with special guest Hugh Fraser (trombone) at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch) on January 23. The event celebrates the release of Panorama, the latest recording from the respected Vancouver quartet.
Known for his broad sound and engaging improvisational approach, Western Canadian Music Award winner Allen is Director of Jazz at Western Washington University, and his quartet, WWU’s in-residence jazz ensemble. In the 1990’s, Mike forged his style in the bands of guitarist Sonny Greenwich, drummer Pete Magadini and bassist Chuck Israels. As band leader, in addition to eleven albums and four national tours, Mike has played at the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree, and performed on separate occasions for the Prime Minister of Canada and Princes Charles, William and Harry. Mike’s sax playing can also be heard on Michael Buble’s Grammy Award winning album Crazy Love.
Hugh Fraser has been a celebrated trombonist for many years, through residencies in New York, London and Vancouver. He’s won two JUNO awards, been the head of the jazz program at the Banff Centre, and presented jazz workshops across Canada and in Ireland. Hugh is only Canadian participant in Orlando “Maraca” Valle’s 2011 DVD release of the Latin Jazz All Stars, he is included in the top six albums in all genres by Downbeat Magazine. He also performs regularly with his dear friend Chucho Valdes where one of Hugh’s additions to this iconical pianist’s composition has been standard performance and educational fare in Cuba.
For more information and to listen to audio samples visit http://mikeallenjazz.com
Tickets at the Cultch Box Office
Posted on | January 1, 2014 | 1 Comment
Posted on | November 30, 2013 | No Comments
A couple of days ago Cory Weeds appeared on Shaw TV’s The Rush to talk about The Cellar, past, present, and possible future.
Posted on | November 29, 2013 | No Comments
Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, producers of the annual Vancouver International Jazz Festival is looking for a new Executive Director.
Posted on | November 22, 2013 | 1 Comment
Vancouver composer, improviser, cellist Peggy Lee today receives the Mayor’s Arts Award for music. Mayor Gregor Robertson will present the awards at a special ceremony today (November 22, 2013) at Telus World of Science.keep looking »