Miles Davis probably never played Nintendo. It's technically possible; the genre-bending, stereotype-defying jazz legend lived until 1991, six years after the first Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America. Who knows how the trumpet player spent his free time? He may have seen a video game, or even picked up a controller. But it's a pretty safe bet that he never stormed Bowser's castle or paused to appreciate the "piku-piku-piku" sound that played when Mario went down a tunnel.
In fact, the jazz and video-game-music communities have remained largely separate until now. And yes, there is a video-game-music community an extensive, primarily Internet-based collective of musicians who focus on a genre they call chiptune. Most enthusiasts are people in their 20s and 30s who find themselves drawn to the sounds of early video games, to blend those electronic bleeps and bloops with rock, pop and hip-hop. Chiptune is still relatively obscure: in 2007, hip-hop artist Timbaland got in trouble for sampling a tune composed by a Finnish chiptune musician in one of his songs. That same year, a rapper named Megaran released a Mega Manthemed album that landed him a deal with video-game publisher Capcom. But so far, that's pretty much it. Chiptune music's lo-fi, bleepy asthetic works well with songs by Kanye West and MGMT, but not so much with songs by someone like Miles Davis.
Andy Baio decided to change that. The blogger, based in Portland, Ore., works as the chief technical officer for Kickstarter, a website that allows people to finance their creative projects by soliciting donations from their network of contacts. The site launched a few months ago, and to test it out, Baio designed his own project: Miles Davis' entire Kind of Blue album performed with old-school, 8-bit computer-game sounds. "Basically, I'm a fan of Davis and just wanted to hear what Kind of Blue sounded like in chiptune," he says.
Baio didn't make chiptune music himself, but he knew people who did. He bought the proper licensing rights to Kind of Blue and recruited five artists, each of whom agreed to cover one of the five tracks on the album. The musicians had three months to finish the songs. Baio gave them full artistic license; they could experiment or stay as true to the original song as they wanted. His only request was that the finished products retain some of Davis' original feeling and intensity. "Other than that, they were free to do whatever they felt," says Baio. "That's what jazz is about, right?" He named his experiment Kind of Bloop.
Chiptune music is created through computer-programming code, and because of that, most musicians come to the medium through their interest in computers. They do not necessarily know how to play an instrument. "You write a program and feed it to the computer, which reads it as if it were sheet music," explains 24-year-old Sam Ascher-Weiss, whose cover of Davis' "All Blues" appears on Kind of Bloop. "You see what it sounds like, mess around with it, and try it again." Ascher-Weiss is a chiptune anomaly: he is a jazz pianist and working musician in New York City. For Kind of Bloop, he recorded himself playing "All Blues" on the piano. Then he listened to the recording and figured out how to program it on the computer. The process was very laborious. "You're making music with outdated computers. You need a masochistic desire to have something difficult to do," he says. The result doesn't sound like jazz, but it doesn't sound completely unlike it either. It's like Miles Davis lost in Legend of Zelda.
Not surprisingly, jazz purists hate it. "I've gone on jazz message boards and they're offended by it. They feel like it's blasphemy," says Baio. He points out that since Kind of Bloop wasn't available to the public until Aug. 20, the haters were complaining about something they had never heard. (Baio timed the project's release with the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue, which took place on Aug. 17. The original Kickstarter backers were able to download the songs on the actual anniversary date, with the public release coming three days later.)
Jazz musicians might consider Kind of Bloop heresy, but the video-game community can't wait to hear it. Gamers and programmers thrive off new genres; they flood the Internet with thousands of mash-ups and remixes when most people think one version of a song will do. In fact, Baio already has ideas for future chiptunes experiments: Delta blues, Motown, or maybe Joni Mitchell's Blue. He just doesn't want to be the one to produce them. "The Kind of Blue musicians came together for one album and then broke up. It was a onetime project and this one is the same way," he says. "I don't want it to be gimmicky."