Embodied Imitation: Why Riff When You Can Copy?

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here's a link.)

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here’s a link.)

“Why bother replicating a masterpiece that already exists? There’s only one original.” – Dan Morgenstern, jazz author and critic

Dan Morgenstern in a sense answers his own question about Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s (MOPDTK) reproduction of Kind of Blue, which is called Blue. There’s only one original. Indeed, there is no danger of infringing on the larger than life notoriety of Kind of Blue – and there is no way to reproduce the moment in time when this communication that has meant so much to so many was created.

We already read about the “original” in Dr. Irvine’s “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture” reading, so I’ll just say a few words before getting back to MOPDTK. Dr. Irvine observes, “The album is an interface to a dialogic moment of major reinterpretations of the cumulative, inherited musical encyclopedia (African American blues roots, jazz and bebop reinterpretations, and music theory in the European-American classical tradition).” Davis took a combinatorial approach to exploring how different musical traditions could intersect. Kind of Blue is unquestionably original as a composition in a moment in time, but the composition was made using the lexicons and encyclopedias of several musical traditions. Dr. Irvine also notes that this album has gone on to be “the most commented on jazz album in history, forming a dense node of cultural meanings and values expressed both in interpretive discourse and in hundreds of appropriations and elaborations by many other musicians in the dialogic continuum of contemporary music.” It’s also worth noting that this wildly influential jazz album is a recording of an improvisation – its very function of committing the explorations and interpretations of these particular musicians in this particular moment to be listened to time and again connects it to the encyclopedias of other genres.

Back to MOPDTK. As David A. Graham puts it in his review for The Atlantic, “The joke is that no one has ever tried to recreate a record quite like this, but for the last six decades, musicians have performing music that sounds a lot like Kind of Blue and the other milestone records of its era.” It seems Kind of Blue is both lexicon and cultural encyclopedia for jazz musicians. Presumably its riffs and tones are incorporated into both live and recorded jazz every day. MOPDTK is in a sense cutting out the middle man by choosing to dedicate themselves to rendering this powerful influence with as much fidelity as possible rather than “interpreting.” On one level of meaning, Blue could be seen as an acknowledgement that the closest MOPDTK can come to accomplishing a comparable feat to Kind of Blue is simply to play it.

On another level, MOPDTK, like Davis before them, are experimenting with the conventions of different genres. In classical music it’s accepted practice to play someone else’s (very famous and previously recorded) composition note for note. Why not in jazz? MOPDTK dares listeners to experience the ineffable charm that makes Kind of Blue so great by being able to compare it to a carbon copy that cannot actually be the same. Graham’s assessment for The Atlantic: “MOPDTK are no slouches—they are among of the finest players working today, and to have produced so close an imitation is a serious accomplishment. But no amount of meticulous necromancy can conjure the vibe of the original players, some of the greatest to ever pick up instruments.” Can we in fact hear the difference between adept, heartfelt improvisation and painstaking performance?

Is Blue a message meant specifically for jazz musicians, critics, and aficionados? The way Graham puts it, “This is music intended to hold an unflattering mirror to jazz’s worst tendencies, not to mock the music before the outside the world.” Is the generative purpose of this album to remind jazz musicians that they should be flowing and exploring? Does MOPDTK think jazz is in some sense stuck in a previous era of innovation, worshipping past victories instead of generating new meanings?

Clearly another important level of meaning in this endeavor is that which MOPDTK experienced while executing the project. To recreate the sound of Kind of Blue, they needed to use modern recording equipment in an innovative way just to produce the “old” sounds. They had to learn not just what notes to play, but how to play them. They got to in a sense embody the musicians that so many jazz musicians since have sought, perhaps less explicitly, to emulate. MOPDTK’s bassist and band leader Matthew “Moppa” Elliott told the Wall Street Journal, “You can’t take this on the road and expect studio results, which was the whole point… 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.”


Graham, D. A. (2014, October 28). Why Did This Band Recreate Jazz’s Most Famous Record Note-for-Note? Retrieved February 18, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/when-is-a-miles-davis-record-not-jazz/381983/

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Blue. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2015, from http://www.popmatters.com/review/187258-mostly-other-people-do-the-killing-blue/

Myers, M. (2014, October 10). Miles Davis’s Jazz Masterpiece “Kind of Blue” Is Redone. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/miles-daviss-jazz-masterpiece-kind-of-blue-is-redone-1412699010

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.