The bassist/producer/record label executive talked with Lee Mergner about Blue Note Records’ involvement with Blue Note at Sea and what he thinks is unique about the experience.
Lee Mergner: How did you and Blue Note got involved with the cruise initially?
Don Was: Michael [Lazaroff] found us originally. He thought there was an opportunity to do a cruise that was programmed differently from both the Jazz Cruise and the Smooth Jazz Cruise, both of which have been incredibly successful over the years. He thought that the blend of artists on the Blue Note roster really kind of fit the description of what he had in mind for the third cruise. So just to check out what his cruises were like, he booked my old band Was/Not Was on the ‘80s cruise. And, I didn’t know what to make of cruises. [laughs]
Many of us have that initial reaction of “Oh, I’m not doing a cruise!” But then it ends up being a lot of fun.
We had a great time. It was incredibly well-run and the shows were really well-produced, better produced than most of the things we do on land in fact. The sound was great, the lighting was great, the crew—everything was just handled so well. And we had a great time, so I knew then that this would be a great thing for Blue Note. We reached out to Steven Bensusan, who owns the Blue Note clubs—which was kind of a historic thing because we had both been in the world of jazz, both been using the Blue Note name, but we’d never really done anything together. And so a partnership was forged. That’s how it happened. We’ve now done two Blue Note at Sea cruises so far.
What do you think is most unique about Blue Note at Sea?
The thing that struck me about it was how much the artists loved it and how they loved the opportunity. Normally, if they play, they’re on a tour of jazz festivals, they pass each other for ten minutes maybe in the big green room and the hotel. So, they really don’t get to hang out together, much less play together. But there’s something about everyone being together for six or seven days like this, and getting to play in all these different configurations with people who you’re friendly with but really have never dug in and mind-melded with before over songs. That meant a whole lot to these guys, they really enjoyed every aspect of it. And because they were playing it for each other, because everyone goes to everybody else’s shows, it’s quite an audience that they’re playing for. You’ve got your esteemed colleagues sitting there checking you out. Plus, the audiences on the ship really knew the music, and were really enthusiastic. So, there’s a mood of excitement surrounding every show and I think that makes for great music and a great experience for everybody.
I saw firsthand how you checked out so much of the music—your own label’s artists and other people too.
Yeah, I loved it. I’ve been a producer for years and as a producer I always felt you should make the records that you would want to go out and buy. I think fans who know their way around a recording studio make the best or become the best record producers. If I saw a lineup like this, I would go on the cruise—I’d have bought a cabin. [laughs]
I’ve seen you hanging at Monterey as well. You’re definitely a fan. And that certainly came across when you did that session about what’s happening at Blue Note. Your version was just playing new things that struck you, and it was just a subtle thing about the simple enjoyment of music that didn’t feel like a pitch.
Last night, I was at a film festival and it was the world premiere of a documentary about Blue Note Records made by a woman named Sophie Huber, great Swiss filmmaker [Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes]. She lays out the history of the label from 1939 to the present in really concise terms. The most striking thing is that the guys who founded the label—Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff—were huge fans of the music. There’s a quote, actually audio, from a radio interview that they did decades ago, and they said they didn’t know anything about making records. They just made records that they wanted to hear. [laughs]
And it turned out that they stole your line!
I am completely aware of the origin of the label, and I’m aware that I’m the caretaker of a legacy, and I think that is the cornerstone. The same is true of Bruce Lundvall who ran the label for thirty years—he made music that he loved and figured other people would want to hear it too. You know, they weren’t idiots. It’s a really good business plan.
Things are tougher for labels now, as you know. But if people were less passionate and interested in the music, then I would be concerned. But, of course, that’s not it. They still love to hear it, they want to see it and the passion for the music is still there. It’s just the delivery system that’s the issue and is out of our hands.
That’s okay, it changes. But in my heart, I truly believe that great music prevails.
You’ve been involved in the programming, particularly with the artists on Blue Note Records. There are two acts I especially want to ask you about. Kandace Springs is new to many of us. Can you tell us what folks can expect from her?
She’s a wonderful artist. She came to our attention through two of our record producers, Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken, who brought her to us. The last artist they discovered was Rihanna, so they have a good track record. And she came in and we said, “We have to set up the old Nat Cole piano in Capitol Studios,” and she played for us, and I was blown away. I see her as her generation’s version of maybe Roberta Flack or Diana Krall or Norah Jones.
There’s something special about a singer who accompanies herself or himself.
I think that accompanying a singer is such an incredible art form that kind of goes unnoticed. It’s more than just being a great piano player, it’s about being supportive and keeping a conversation going in the pauses, and that kind of thing. And allowing the singer room to phrase the way they want to. So, if you do it yourself, it becomes a really organic exercise where you pull back on your playing when you’re singing and then play more when you’re not. So, there’s something organic that happens. I think it’s because they’re connected to the true emotional core of the song; they know what it’s really about, and can deliver it.
The other one is the configuration of R+R=Now with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and Christian Scott. How did that group come together?
We have a beautiful album coming out in June. I think they’re all just friends, primarily, and they probably were just jamming one night—Robert’s always up playing somewhere, and always putting together interesting combinations of people. And there’s just magic in the chemistry with those guys. Even though they’re all incredibly busy—Terrace Martin is one of the most in-demand record producers around and tours with Herbie Hancock, playing sax and second keyboard—but they blocked out three or four days to get together and see if they could come up with something. I was there, and it was absolutely magical. It was relaxed, and it was fun, and it was really, really good, so they decided to do a whole album’s worth of stuff and go out and play some shows. But they’re not playing that many, so for the cruise it’s a great thing that we got them there. And, of course, they’ll break down and play in different configurations as well.
That happens on the cruise with mixing and matching of artists and it works well. And the Blue Note All-Stars have that same thing; they’re all close associates and friends, so it’s not like those put-together all-star bands.
Like we were saying, it was done for fun and the desire to play together versus some business consideration.
Also, you do interviews on the cruise. And I’ve got to say, you’re pretty good at it, which is interesting. Stay in your lane, dude! Next thing you’ll be taking photos, too.
I’ll be captain of the ship next year as well! [laughs] Though the captain this past year was fantastic. I started following her on Instagram and I really hope we have her back. I never got to meet her, but she’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever found. It’s more than being a comedienne, she’s really deep, man. She’s a philosopher captain.
What did you enjoy about doing those interviews over the last couple of years?
They’re conversations really. It’s the opportunity—like, for example, last year, I didn’t know Chick Corea. I’d never met him, and he’s been a hero of mine since the sixties. So, it was really great to have a conversation with him. It didn’t matter that it was in front of 500 people, there were just so many things I wanted to ask him about and he’s such a fascinating and really generous personality. I thought he was incredibly forthcoming. He was quite open and understood that there were things people wanted to know about his music and was quite happy to discuss it. So, I enjoy it as a fan, you know.
When you look at Chick Corea, he’s one of those people who’s really generous on the bandstand, and he’s always looking for new folks. And the people who don’t, I just feel are missing out.
I can tell you, I’ve become really good friends with Chick since the cruise, and I spoke with him—he’s in Russia this weekend—I spoke with him yesterday in fact on the phone, right before he had to go on a plane. His enthusiasm is just boundless, and that’s contagious, you pick up on that. He’s got just a great energy and he just can’t play enough music. I really love that. It’s something for musicians to aspire to, and I think people, whatever they do with their time, can learn from that and emulate it.
Do you know who you’re going to interview next year? Maybe Kurt Elling?
I’ve produced Kurt Elling. I produced Kurt Elling before I had the job at Blue Note. The Gate is I think the one I did. And I remember I was producing an artist, it wasn’t a jazz artist, it was a singer-songwriter, and we were having a little trouble with the record—it was good, but it wasn’t great. And I remember driving around L.A. and I was listening to K-Jazz, the jazz station out of Long Beach, and I heard Kurt Elling come on singing, I think it’s called “Not While I’m Around” from Twilight I think is the album, it’s a Blue Note album. And it was just such a great vocal and it gave me insight into how to finish the record that I was working on, just hearing Kurt come on. And I started listening to his records—and he’s made some incredible albums for Blue Note. And I never, ever call an artist to hustle work as a producer, it just seems unsavory. But my band played in Chicago, and I knew somebody who knew Kurt and I got his phone number and I said, “Look, I’m just a big fan and I would be honored if you would come to the show,” and we became really good friends and I ended up making a record with him. I think he’s a marvelous singer and I always love going to his shows and hearing him sing, I’m looking forward to this.
Cecile McLorin Salvant would be another artist who that would be very interesting for you to interview, because she’s also so intelligent.
They all fit in great. You don’t have to be on the Blue Note roster to do the cruise, although Wynton’s certainly made music for us as has Kurt Elling. But it’s an ethos, it’s an aesthetic. All of those artists fit right in, I think.
If you were going to tell people who have never done Blue Note at Sea something to make them give it a try, what would you say? Would it be for the hang, the music, the captain’s humor?
It’s a combination of seeing all this great music and of being on the water. Outside of the shows, the thing that I like the most is sitting quietly and watching the water go by. It’s like meditation. I think a neurologist who could hook you up to a brain machine would find that. I come off of there feeling like I’ve been to some sort of Zen retreat for seven days. You hear great music, and I ate a lot of great food. [laughs]