Miles Davis’s Jazz Masterpiece ‘Kind of Blue’ Is Redone
Miles Davis CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
When the CD “Blue” (Hot Cup) is released next Tuesday by the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the album will likely trigger an uproar among jazz fans. Unlike most tribute albums, which rely on interpretation, “Blue” is a note-for-note replication of Miles Davis ’s “Kind of Blue”—the 1959 album that influenced several generations of jazz and rock musicians.
Choosing to copy any iconic album takes audacity and raises some controversy, but when the dust settles, “Blue” could wind up spawning a new music genre—verbatim versions of classic albums. If “Blue” is even moderately successful, jazz, rock and soul musicians may be motivated to clone other pivotal works like the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” Marvin Gaye ’s “What’s Going On” and John Coltrane ’s “A Love Supreme.”
For now, though, “Blue” has some seasoned critics scratching their heads. “I can’t think of another album in the modern jazz era that has gone this far with imitation,” said jazz author and critic Dan Morgenstern. “Why bother replicating a masterpiece that already exists? There’s only one original.”
“Blue” isn’t the first jazz tribute album to cling to its inspiration. In the 1970s, Supersax and Dave Pell’s Prez Conference transcribed the sax solos of Charlie Parker and Lester Young for a reed section. And in 2008, Zenph Studios, a music-technology firm, recorded a special digital piano playing intricate solos first performed by pianist Art Tatum.
“Blue,” however, is different. The band took the extra step of mirroring all aspects of the source material—from individual solos to tempo differentiations and tape-recorder hiss. “Before people get too worked up over this, they need to realize that our album 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,” says the band’s 36-year-old bassist and leader Matthew “Moppa” Elliott. “That’s where the art is—getting people to think about the original by listening harder to the differences.”
The concept for “Blue” was first discussed in 2004 when Mr. Elliott and several other Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduates floated the idea of reproducing the Miles Davis classic. “We wanted to crawl inside the music to figure out what made it great,” Mr. Elliott said. “It turned out that specific notes became less interesting than how they needed to be played.”
But once the instrumental parts from “Kind of Blue” were transcribed in 2011, the band ran into several studio hurdles, including recording together the way the Miles Davis Sextet did originally. “The smallest errors called for retakes,” Mr. Elliott said. “Eventually the rhythm section recorded the basic tracks with the horns added later, their solos recorded individually. Instead of using tenor and alto saxophonists for John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Jon Irabagon doubled on both.”
Following in the footsteps of jazz giants also led to discoveries. “[Bassist] Paul Chambers had an interesting way of shifting his hand to give him the widest range of note possibilities,” Mr. Elliott said. “He also 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.”
Though trumpeter Peter Evans, who plays Miles Davis’s parts, recently left the group to devote more time to his projects, Mr. Elliott says the “Blue” band never intended to tour. “You can’t take this on the road and expect studio results, which was the whole point,” he said. “Even the Miles Davis Sextet sounded different when they played album selections live. For us, it was always about the studio experience—the archaeology of it.”
After listening to a few songs from “Blue,” drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the “Kind of Blue” sextet, agreed. “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,” he said. “But, hey, classical has been doing this for centuries—playing the notes someone else wrote. If these guys took the time to do this, the music must mean something to them.”