Q&A with Don Was: Capturing the Blue Note Vibe

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Don Was

(Photo: Courtesy the artist)

From vibraphonists Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson to pianist Geri Allen and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Blue Note Records artists have been participating in the Monterey Jazz Festival throughout its much-admired history. At MJF’s 60th anniversary weekend, held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds Sept. 15–17, the illustrious label had its own tent, where Blue Note artists and others wre featured daily. Fittingly, it was captained by Don Was, the label’s president and affable spokesman.

In addition to hosting events such as one-on-one interviews between Was and label artists like Wayne Shorter and Joe Lovano, the label also provided exclusive details for the deluxe Blue Note Review subscription-only series. Was said the first volume, due out in the fall, will be a box set consisting of an exclusive double-vinyl compilation of unreleased tracks, a set of frameable photographic prints, a special edition magazine, a Blue Note scarf by fashion designer John Varvatos and a CD version of the album.

Was played excerpts of some of the tracks, which were heard by V.I.P. attendees and later general public audiences via wireless headphones. Selections included a live recording of vocalist Gregory Porter with the Blue Note All-Stars performing on a boat during a “Blue Note at Sea” cruise, and vocalist-pianist Kandace Springs collaborating with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

DownBeat sat down with Was immediately following his Blue Note Review presentation to discuss the new subscription series.

You talked about how you couldn’t afford to buy a lot of records when you were a new jazz fan, and how you and a friend would read the liner notes off the back of albums at record stores instead. How would the 14-year-old Don Was react to the first Blue Note Review box set?

Being a fan of Blue Note vinyl as a teenager in the 1960s has totally informed the process of coming up with Blue Note Review. The Blue Note Review was really meant to be the 12-inch vinyl experience—tactile and just loaded with vibe. It’s meant to be that experience on steroids, really.

Can you describe the “vibe?”

It wasn’t just the music. I used to look at the photos, the Francis Wolff photos. And they looked so fucking cool. [The musicians are] all smoking cigarettes and holding saxophones and wearing these cool clothes, and you could never see the walls in the room in the pictures. So I couldn’t tell where they were, but I just want to be part of that.

The Blue Note Review packaging and design elements of the box are really sharp.

That’s an extension of the Reid Miles graphics on those covers. They made a strong statement and just made you feel like you were part of something bigger and cooler, and that you belonged.

The first set has a nice collection of veteran artists, newcomers and rare tracks from both.

I wanted people to have a sense of discovery. As a teenager, you couldn’t afford to buy all the albums that looked appealing to you. I remember that Impulse! did a sampler called The New Wave In Jazz. John Coltrane and Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler and Roswell Rudd had tracks on it, and I got that early on. Just hearing a lot of music at once, it turned me on to all different kinds of things. And I wanted to be able to do that with Blue Note Review.

Given the amount of unreleased music in the Blue Notes Records vaults, it must have been daunting at first to narrow down your track listing.

It came together pretty organically. We just sat around and talked about it. (laughs) It’s not dissimilar to writing a song or producing a record or being a musician.

You didn’t have much precedent in terms of this type of subscription series, which could have been both an advantage and disadvantage.

It took us a long time. I knew from the day that I took the gig [in January 2012] that I wanted to compensate for the lack of liner notes. Our initial thought was to do a magazine with a CD pocket in it.

Then we started thinking about it, and we said, “Let’s make it more experiential.” We started seeing some really nice luxury subscription boxes. Then I saw some of the stuff that Jack White, who’s a good friend of mine, was doing —some of the Third Man [Records] vault stuff.

So we took all that information in and tried to come up with our own original approach to it. And I can’t think of anything else that’s like it currently.

Talk about some of the box set’s non-musical content.

There’s a poem in there. But it seems like it would appeal to people who love the music. And there’s a comic strip. Kandace Springs did a painting of Louis Armstrong, and there’s a great interview that [comedian, actor and jazz enthusiast] Jeff Garlin did with Wayne Shorter. Charles Lloyd wrote a beautiful piece about his old friend, Billy Higgins, who appeared on so many Blue Note albums.

With so much music available through streaming, this package takes the opposite approach and really focuses on something specific.

It was meant very much to turn people on to different artists and different approaches to music. So it’s quite varied. But I thought when we heard some of the tracks played today, there’s a sensibility running through all the music. I felt that on this first set.

I think that in today’s culture, you’re starting to see more and more of, “OK, do we need more things? Or are we looking for something that actually touches your soul?” DB



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October 2019
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