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Mostly Other People Do the Killing interview: ‘If we wanted to make people mad, that's easy’

The modernist jazz pranksters clue us in on the year's most provocative tribute-album stunt

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Photograph: Bryan Murray Mostly Other People Do the Killing
By Brad Cohan |
There's nothing special about a Miles Davis tribute: Such events go down almost daily in jazz clubs around the globe. But covering the entirety of the trumpeter's canonical classic Kind of Blue note for note? That takes chutzpah. And frankly, we're not too surprised that Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a local group known for its playful subversions of jazz orthodoxy, was the first to do it on their new LP, Blue.

In advance of the group's upcoming show at Cornelia Street Café, we spoke to bassist-bandleader Moppa Elliott and saxist Jon Irabagon about what the hell they were thinking when they decided to take on this passion project, which has drawn equal amounts of ire and awe from the NYC jazz community.

So, why a note-for-note version of Kind of Blue?

Moppa Elliott
: I've been thinking about it for 10 years. I came up with the idea and I thought it would be fun and interesting. The more we talked about it, the more interesting it got. It was just a thought experiment and then I thought it would be really interesting for a bunch of reasons, and the list kept getting longer—it has more questions that it asks and more things that come up.

What relation do you have to Blue?
Elliott: That's the first music I ever heard in my life. My parents actually took headphones and put them up to my mom's belly. I can't remember an actual time in my life when I didn't know that whole thing backwards and forwards.

Did your folks ever ask why you would remake it?
Elliott: It took a long time for [my father, a jazz musician and writer] to figure out what the hell it was we were doing. I told him about the idea. He said that's strange and it doesn't quite compute. Then we kept talking about it and now he's very much interested. It's a thing that provokes thought and discussion. It's more art than it even is music. I felt it was an important thing for us, and me, to do because no one has ever done anything like this before.

Jon, how important was Kind of Blue to your own trajectory?
Jon Irabagon: Kind of Blue was indeed a formative record for me, though not my favorite Miles record, or my favorite Cannonball performance or Coltrane performance. In addition, the original version I had was the one at the incorrect speed, so it always felt slightly off to me and was difficult to play along with until I purchased the corrected version. By then, the albums Milestones, ’58 Sessions, Crescent and Live in San Francisco were in heavy rotation at my place, and those performances really moved me. But of course, Kind of Blue is a special record and one that every jazz musician can learn a lot from. 

How painstaking was it to actually record?

: It was 2010, so it still took three-and-a-half solid years of work to transcribe all the notes. I remember starting to transcribe in February of 2010, and it took me until summer to have all the notes down. Then even once we were in the studio this past January, Ron and I were going back to the records and we still couldn't tell what all the notes are. There are certain things where it's like a combination of certain notes and certain overtones and you can't tell what's actually there. Even years into the process, we were still finding things that we didn't know were there.

How did all your bandmates feel about re-creating such an iconic record?

: Immediately everyone was into it. There was zero hesitation on anyone's part. I can't completely take credit for the idea because it came up when I was talking with Peter and a couple of other people, and ideas were bandied about the room, but still it's definitely my thing more than anyone else's. The thought was that this is my band, and by executive decision it was now time for us to do this. And everyone was like, "Yeah, of course!"

Jon, what was your initial reaction to the idea?

: As a group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing was always interested in different approaches and philosophical stances and directions in jazz, as well as linking jazz music and our love for it to other aspects of our lives. When the idea came up, we initially just talked about it, and it eventually became an idea that we all fell in love with, and something we couldn't stop thinking and talking about. Recording it then became a serious goal. Honestly, the whole process never involved talk or discussion of money in any way, shape or form. In addition, touring or performing this music live was ruled out pretty quickly as well. We had no idea what the jazz elitists or the gatekeepers were going to say, or anything like that, and that's really the most honest way to approach doing your thing, right? If you changed what you were going to do based on what you were afraid people might do or say, then you're really missing out on something that you truly believe in. So we just went for it, and people are going to say what they want to say. But people say what they want to say if you cater to them or not, so we just went about this project as honestly and fully invested as possible.

Was there talk it would piss off jazz elitists?
: No, not really. Our intention was not to piss anyone off. If we wanted to do that, there were plenty of other things we could have done. If we wanted to, we could have just recorded our own version and [ripped] those songs into shreds. If we wanted to make people mad, that's easy. But making people mad is easy because of the Internet and everything.

Speaking of, do you pay attention to...

: I don't have Facebook or Twitter. I'm not going into Facebook threads and Twitter wars. I'm well aware of what people are saying because people call me. I've gotten hate mail from random people I've never met. Just random people. They just go on my website and it goes straight to me and it's like, "You guys are fucking assholes—fuck you." We never really had any discussions about making people angry; it obviously wasn't the intent. We definitely knew that it would happen, and that it would happen in a very reactionary way, which it has.

Did you get similar kinds of reactions to earlier records like This Is Our Moosic, which both parodies and pays homage to Ornette Coleman?

: No, not at all because all of our [album] covers have been takeoffs of other albums and that's always been a commentary on the relationship between playing jazz now and jazz's own history. You can't really play jazz now without it being immersed in intense jazz history and that history can kind of creep up and consume you if you let it. In the same way that Beethoven creeps up and consumes you if you're a classical artist. There's that great Alex Ross article in The New Yorker about the fact that Beethoven is actually bad for music, because everyone is so obsessed with Beethoven that no one talks about anyone else, really, and we'd all be way better off if everyone just shut up about Beethoven and just listened to what's going on now.

And jazz history has a lot of those same kinds of problems. So I've always approached it like this: I'm a kid who grew up in a house that jazz was playing in all the time, so when I sit down to write music, that's sort of just in my brain whether I want it to be there or not. That's who I am. But I'm an educated white dude who wants to play jazz now, and how can I do that without it being a museum piece. How can I do that and still have it swing? So it's interesting we never got flak for doing that. We've done that for a long time—a witty take on the imagery—whereas now we're taking it much further than that.

And with Blue it's being noticed for whatever reason.

: It's very interesting because it's like, "You're allowed to mess around with Roy Haynes and Keith Jarrett, but you aren't allowed to mess around with Miles?" Like, there's a line there? And that's the whole Beethoven thing, like, Miles is off limits? I don't think Miles would want to be off-limits. That's a weird thing right there.

There's some threshold you crossed.

: I think, with the earlier stuff, a lot of the audience, a lot of the festivals and a lot of the critics pay attention to us but a lot of musicians tend not to, because we're not really—other than Irabagon—we're not really on the jazz scene.

And all of a sudden you do Miles and it creates a firestorm.

: I think it seems pretty obvious that people are going to react negatively, like "Oh, this is a copy of Kind of Blue that is stupid and exploitative," and not bother to think about or look into what it actually is. The majority of the criticism started before anyone had looked into it or even heard it, so people being mad about their own personal idea of what they think before they even know what the thing is. The one person I always read is Ethan Iverson, who's done two posts about [the record]. First, he wrote that it was a great idea and he wished he had thought of it and when you have a strong reaction to a piece of art you're validating the art. Then he did another post where he was actually pretty critical of it. He talks about how our version doesn't swing, which I actually agree with. On the one hand, I'm not Paul Chambers and Kevin is not Jimmy Cobb. Their pocket is ridiculous. So I read Ethan and I thought, Oh, man—Ethan doesn't think we swing on this record. But it's like, we're not trying to swing on this record; we're trying to make a copy.

How many takes did it take to get Blue down?

: We transcribed it in 2010. It took Kevin the longest because he's doing all of these meticulous cymbal things, so it took him a year. Just writing it down, writing down the notes, because it's ridiculous. Then in fall 2011, we went into the studio for the first time. We finished it this past February and then in March and April we finished mixing the final version. It was actually mixed by the same guys who remastered the original, because I happen to know one of those guys, so they used the same master file that they used on the last reissue of Kind of Blue.

Jon, can you talk about the experience of playing both the tenor parts of John Coltrane and the alto parts of Cannonball Adderly? How imposing was it?
Irabagon: Transcribing and trying to get as many of the nuances of both Cannonball's and Coltrane's playing was impossibly imposing and ridiculously difficult, and both are reasons I was way into doing this project. I learned a ton from doing this, not the least of which is how nuanced each of their approaches are. An interesting thing that I learned, especially with Coltrane, is that what I "remembered" those solos being like were really more like generalizations of how Coltrane sounded during that period. When I went in and studied each articulation and phrase individually, you could really tell he was improvising in the moment and searching.

Sometimes the tonguing is a little off. The eighth-note lines are not always perfectly in time and metrically "correct," even though as a student of jazz in today's world, that's what you are aiming at. Sometimes—more times than the opposite—Coltrane rushes the ends of his phrases, but how do you write that out? And if you write that out more "correctly"—so, looking more complicated—than just eighth notes or 16th notes, even though he's not necessarily thinking in that way, what does that mean for what you get out of transcribing it for your own playing? Which avenue do you pursue for your own playing: rushed at the ends of phrases because Coltrane did it, a more "perfect" academic approach, a combination of the two, or something totally different?

The implications and questions that I started asking myself while, and after, I was learning these solos really have had an immediate impact on the way I look at my own playing and improvising.  Of course, for this particular project, this is of secondary importance, but when I think of a life's work, and a consistency of trying to further myself and challenge myself to look at my own improvisation and music differently, these were huge lessons for me. Because I was able to take different things away from this project as well as giving my best to learning these solos with as much accuracy as possible, I was able to get past the trepidation and intimidation that I was feeling about transcribing and putting to tape my "versions" of the solos of two of my all-time favorite saxophone players. My contributions to this project were done with complete humility, hard work and months of dedication, and I learned a lot from that process as well.

And do you call it Blue because it's MOPDtK's take on it?

: Well, it's not Kind of Blue, because it is different. And I was thinking we can't call it Feeling Kind of Blue, because a lot of other people do that. I also just liked the juxtaposition that the original title was Kind of Blue, which is sort of a hesitant statement. It was all sorts of extensions of modern jazz playing, so it's not really a blues record even though there are blues influences. But our Blue isn't "kind of" anything. We spent 10 years on it. This is just fucking "blue"—this is what it is. There is no questioning what this is. It's a single noun.

When you were recording Blue, did you ever think, This doesn't sound enough like the original.

: Oh, yeah. I mean that's a rabbit hole you can go down forever. It's one of those, like, "Okay, I solved this problem and that brings up, like, four others."

So you could have worked on Blue for...

: For the rest of our lives. So that's another thing we got into. We were working in the studio on what ended up being the last day of the rhythm section. All of us were listening to the playback and were like, "We could totally do this better." But that would mean we would all go home for a few weeks and practice, and then come back here and do it again, and then we would be right where we left off. So I was like, "I'm drawing a line in the sand. That's as good as we can get it in February, 2014." But we could have kept doing that forever and it would just get better and better. At which point it turns into this totally other thing.

But there was no point at which you said, "Screw this, it's just too much."

: No, because it keeps getting more interesting: The more stuff you find, the more it becomes this crazy Easter-egg hunt. Because once the notes are all there, and you're not even sure about that, it's like, "Okay, what fingering do you use, and how does that determine what it sounds like?" Then there are these little clicks, which means that he must have let the string go up a little bit before hitting the next string, and then it was like: Okay, if he's letting that string up, then it must mean he's using his pinky to play it. You can keep doing that forever. And the thing is, we are just scratching the surface. And even when you can push that as far as you can push it, I'm still not [Kind of Blue bassist] Paul Chambers and I will never get it right. So the thing we realized 10 years ago is that this is completely impossible; it can never be done.  But these deviations bring out the best stuff in those guys.

Do you consider yourself a provocateur?

: I've never considered myself a provocateur, but that's a misconception that we've had to deal with from the outset. The thing with the band is we have this name, and I knew what the band name was going to be before there was a band.

I assume you don't have plans to do something as ambitious as this for your next endeavor.

Elliott: No, no. This is a one-off anomaly, we've been thinking about this for a long time but this isn't what we do. We're an experimental jazz band that wants to play our weird, funky music.

See the show!

Music, Jazz

Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Mostly Other People Do the Killing has been on a tear in recent years, demonstrating anew why it's one of the most appealing jazz ensembles in town. The local quartet—led by bassist Moppa Elliott and featuring trumpeter Peter Evans, saxist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea—has as much fun laying down a funky, whimsical groove as it does explodingform altogether, resulting in performances that feel at once anarchic and oddly wholesome. Here it gigs behind Blue, its wildest endeavor yet: a note-for-note re-creation of Miles Davis's landmark Kind of Blue. (Though the Nov 9 show will feature the group's typical Elliott originals.)

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