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The first time most people caught a glimpse of musician and producer Don Was, he was the high-haired cat in sunglasses playing a leopard-print bass on the Was (Not Was) video for the 1988 dance hit “Walk the Dinosaur.” He’d parlay the success of that song into high-profile gigs with Bonnie Raitt and The B-52s, producing their enormously successful albums (Nick of Time and Cosmic Thing, respectively), and go on to helm recording sessions by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, among other icons.While those credits might not suggest it, Was (born Don Fagenson) grew up in Detroit as a die-hard jazz fan, saving his hard-earned coin to buy coveted Blue Note albums by the likes of organist Larry Young and saxophonist Joe Henderson. In fact, the first album he produced was Mirror, Mirror, a funky slab of 1970s soul-jazz by Detroit saxophonist Sam Sanders on the Strata label.Breakfast with an old friend in 2012 landed Was a gig he could never have dreamed of as a young engineer scrambling around the studios of Detroit — president of Blue Note Records. In New York to produce a John Mayer album, Was suggested to his pal Dan McCarroll , president of Capitol Records, that then-rising-star singer Gregory Porter would be a good fit for Blue Note, which was under the Capitol umbrella. Unbeknownst to Was, Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall was having health issues and couldn’t continue in his role. “And I came in with an idea on a day that they had to decide what they were going to do with Blue Note,” Was recalls, talking by phone from his home in Santa Monica, California, in early June. “They were looking for a way to take the label forward. So [Macleod] said, ‘Ahh, you should sign him!’ He offered me the job, basically.”Shepherding Blue Note into the future, Was, 68, keeps the 81-year-old imprint vital with forward-looking artists such as Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Ambrose Akinmusire, while staying loyal to legacy artists such as Charles Lloyd and Dr. Lonnie Smith. His tenure has also included modernizing the mighty Blue Note archive via an audiophile reissue series and assuring that 90 percent of the catalog (thus far) is available for streaming. Was reminisced about his early days in the studio, sharing his hard-won wisdom and underlying philosophy about making records, and relayed his thoughts about Blue Note’s past and future.
[caption id="attachment_32620" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Don Was (Photo by Matthieu Bitton)[/caption]
Do you remember the first time you entered a studio?My buddy David Was [Was (Not Was) partner David Weiss] and I went down together, we were probably 12 years old. His parents were voice-over actors, and they worked all the time. So they took us to the studio one time and they were doing a commercial or something, and it was a studio called United Sound, which is still standing; it’s where John Lee Hooker cut “Boogie Chillen’” .’ It’s got an incredible history. George Clinton had it on lockdown in the ’70s and ’80s. Anyway, they took us down there, and I walk into one of those big rooms. They had big mic stands and cables and it was just the coolest place. I wanted to spend as much time in that environment as I could. How did you get involved in studio engineering?In the early ’70s, I was probably 20, I took a class that was sponsored by the Recording Institute of America, at United Sound. It was just an inaugural session of something they were trying to do, which was to make a trade school for recording engineers. And I just remember being in love with that room and everything about it. The school was fuckin’ terrible! They didn’t know how EQ works. It was a little goofy. But when I finished the class, which was only like four or five weeks, I was able to go to a guy named Jack Tann in Detroit, who had opened a little eight-track studio. And I conned him into believing that I knew how to be an engineer. So I just went in there and used the little bits I knew and a whole lotta bullshit, and I was able to put in a lot of time.
[caption id="attachment_32621" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Credit: George Rose[/caption]
The very first [session] I did was for a jazz-saxophone player named Sam Sanders. Ed Pickens was the bass player. The guy who picked up the Strata catalog [Amir Abdullah] bought it off of [Strata founder and pianist] Ken Cox and released the album that I cut [Mirror, Mirror, in 2013]. I got a new vinyl copy of it.Listening to it now, is there anything you would have done differently?When you don’t know what you’re doing, you sometimes do your best stuff. Especially if you don’t have the resources to pay somebody to come in who does know what they’re doing, you have to come up with a solution. And that’s how many cool-sounding records are made, so many of the records that really stand the test of time. Just out of Detroit, you could cite Motown and Fortune Records. Those are two labels that the minute the music comes on, you may not know which artist it is, but you recognize the sound from those two particular studios. And it’s funky and it’s raw and if you were approaching it from an audiophile standpoint, you’d say it was shitty. But it’s fuckin’ amazing, because it’s so evocative. If you can’t afford an 80-piece orchestra, you have to find something else to fill the space and you have to rely on real emotion and real feeling to cover it. You can’t just hire some people to come in and put a coat of house paint on it. I think that’s where great stuff comes from.Is there anything to the “magic of the room” theory, regarding studios?Yeah, the walls are really significant. There are a number of great rooms still standing with the original walls. And basically, it’s all about reflections. You’re not going to avoid getting sound waves bouncing off surfaces and coming back into the microphone. So a great room is a room where the reflections are harmonically pleasing, they’re not dissonant. I think that there’s a science of design, but it doesn’t always hit it; there’s some magic involved, and just luck.
[caption id="attachment_32622" align="alignleft" width="1018"] Rudy Van Gelder (Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images, LLC)[/caption]
Think of [the late Blue Note engineer Rudy] Van Gelder. Architecture students who were disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright designed his room [in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey]. And he wasn’t a physicist or anything. There were some things that were there for reasons of design. There’s like a cathedral wooden ceiling! And there’s something about it, you make some sound and it floats up and stays there and doesn’t come back down, and that allows him to record without a lot of baffles and without a lot of separation, and really without people having to use headphones. He told me that they didn’t even start using headphones until the ’70s in there, and it changed everything. If you look at all the [Blue Note founder] Francis Wolf photos, no one’s wearing cans. Headphones change everything, man. I’m not saying that they’re bad; it’s a way different experience than standing right on top of somebody and feeling the sound pressure hitting your body.Were you trying to replicate that experience on the recent Derrick Hodge album, Color of Noize, recording the musicians live in the studio?Oh yeah, they were in a circle, man. You can see each other, you can hear each other, you can feel the air moving from the drums. You gotta be on top of each other. I think it’s really important; you want the drums to bleed into the piano mics. You get a sense of the space from that. Room ambience translates to intensity and there’s an emotional quality; it gives it an edge.
My favorite is Art Blakey’s Free for All [Blue Note, 1964]. That’s such a timely piece for this week [of Black Lives Matter protests] — it’s a timely piece for every week, unfortunately. And you could feel that [Blakey] was wound up, and he’s playing so fuckin’ loud that it bleeds into every microphone, and it’s actually distorting the mics. It’s how the MC5 sound — it’s like a jazz punk album. And it sounds different from any other Van Gelder record, even though it’s the same mics, the same space, the same [studio set-up] — he had a set place for where the drums went, the place where the saxophone player stood. And yet it’s got its own quality, and I think it’s because Art was playing so loudly in everybody’s microphone.Did Van Gelder mic each piece of the drum set?I doubt that he did it like they do nowadays. [Van Gelder] was so secretive that you couldn’t really ask him about that shit. You have to rely on looking at photographs. And there are no multi-tracks from that era; he mixed everything live. I’m guessing there were probably stereo [mics] and a couple of overheads in the bass drum, or something like that. Nothing’s too tight, which I think is a really good thing. One of the things that happened in the ’70s was that multi-track technology increased logarithmically. So for purposes of competition between studios, a record plant could say, “Well, don’t go to Capitol. We’ve got 24 tracks. And you can put eight mics on the drums.” But that doesn’t mean you should put eight mics on the drums. [laughs]If you think about it, a drummer never puts his ear like an inch from the snare drum to see what the snare drum sounds like. The drummer’s sound is where he’s sitting. One time, I tried an experiment. I thought, Let’s get the sound the way the drummer hears it, the way the drummer probably wants everyone to hear it. So I took a knit cap — this was for The Black Crowes, by the way — and put it on the drummer, Steve Gorman, and duct-taped two microphones right above his ears. And I thought, Let’s get what you’re hearing. Now, it worked fuckin’ great until he moved his head. It made you nauseous. The whole thing kept shifting and you couldn’t use it. The next day I figured out, Well, let’s just put two stationary mic stands about where his ears are, and it sounded pretty great.Tom Dowd talked about fastening a mic to Charles Mingus’ bass because he moved around so much in the studio.That’s a real problem for bass players. I have that problem a lot. You don’t stand still, so you can go in and out; with two mics you can go in and out of phase, with one mic you can get off-mic really easily. [As a player] you want it to sound the way it sounds for you. There’s nothing more disconcerting than going into the control room and hearing your instrument come back sounding differently than the way you wanted it to sound.When you hear a classic session, do you ever feel like you would have done something differently? Whatever happened, it’s probably good that it happened. I give in to that a lot with remastering. Sometimes you can brighten up the piano and make it stand out more, but that’s not necessarily better. Because whatever was going on, whatever balances were placed that made it a classic, why would you impact that just so you could hear one instrument better? Maybe it was the fact that you couldn’t hear it any better that made the finished record so great. So it’s really dangerous turf, going in there and messing with it. The most extreme instance of not editorializing on a remastering that I experienced was on Ornette Coleman’s Live at the Golden Circle, Part 1 and Part 2 . Now I bought that album when it was new. And I just love that record and it’s quirky as fuck. We put it up in the mastering room when we redid it and rediscovered that the left and right side are out of phase with each other. So we put it in phase and all of a sudden, the bass had this great, rich tone and the cymbals sounded like regular cymbals; it was a revelation. But it lost the quirkiness. And it was a real dilemma; how do we get around this? Because now you can really hear David Izenson’s tone on the bass; and that is what the band sounded like, but it no longer sounded like this record, which I think is one of the crown jewels of the Blue Note catalog. In this instance, we put it back in correct phase, so you could hear the bass, but we messed with the EQ so that we could fuck the cymbals up again [cracks up]. It sounded too normal without that, but we were able to get the same effect. And that was the only time that I ever advocated for changing something that was always there.Is there a sense that you want to maintain the intention of the artist and producer?You have a real obligation to do that. Sometimes when people will remaster or remix, like some of The Beatles stuff, you can hear things that you never heard before, and that’s interesting. But I don’t know if it’s better. How are you gonna improve it?It seems as if Blue Note founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf were most concerned with capturing the unique expression of strong individuals like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Art Blakey.I think that’s part of the signing process. You try to find people who have a unique voice, but also the ability to communicate something deep. The point of art, I think, is that we have inner emotional lives that are so complex that conversational language fails to convey the intensity of it. So when we can’t rely on words, we find another medium to communicate that intensity, and that’s what art is, basically. But the difference between good art and shitty art is that a great artist will convey something about his inner emotional life, and then someone 50 years later feels something. It may not be exactly what the artist intended for them to feel, but they feel something. And when it impacts you, it helps you make sense of your own life. Has technology completely changed the way you make records?Nah, because it was never really about the technology; technology’s like a neutral shade. It’s about capturing something real and moving, and that hasn’t changed at all.Back in the day, engineers would literally cut and splice tape with a razor blade. Now that editing function is digital.Because it’s so easy and safe to do it now, you may do it more than you need to do it. And with digital edits, you can save copies, often not the case in the past.Oh, man, it was crazy. Cutting a two-inch master that didn’t have a safety copy was one of the most terrifying things. I got quite good at it. There was a way to do a “window edit,” on a multi-track. In the two-inch [tape], you could figure out where a track was, then you’d take a razor blade and cut out a window just for that one track and then make a copy of something and drop that in. It was a way of flying like a single note over; now you just cut and paste [digitally]. [Back then] it was literally cut and paste; that was one of the most insane things we ever did.It was a great feeling. There was a tremendous power that came from being able to edit things that really happened and reorder them out of sequence. Is there much give and take between you and the artists you sign or produce?My role as record company president is different from when someone asks me to be their producer. As record-company president, I try to just find artists whose instincts I trust and I try to enable them to chase down their vision, whatever that’s gonna require. I would have never said to [singer] José James, “I got an idea! Bill Withers covers!’’ It was totally his idea. He had a whole vision. The guys on Blue Note, they don’t need a whole lot of direction. I never tell anyone what to do.
Blue Note has really embraced the hip-hop aesthetic in jazz. Artists under 50 grew up with the music, so it’s often part of their vocabulary.That’s right. If you really want to find the common link going back to Alfred and Francis’ early years, they were always choosing musicians who could not only reflect the times that they live in, but were reflecting those times in a way that pushed the envelope of contemporary music. Monk and Bud Powell are great examples. But so is Art Blakey and Horace Silver; they invented hard bop. No one was playing that before they put those guys together and let them do that thing. So were Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie [Hancock] in the ’60s, so was Ornette, so was Cecil Taylor, so was Eric Dolphy. So was even Jimmy Smith, who was the big commercial artist on the label. What he was doing was pretty radical; nobody had played the B-3 like that, no one was doing the things he was doing, no one played bass like that on an organ. It was incredible. He did it first. And they got it first.
One of my first days on the job, Robert Glasper came in with rough mixes of Black Radio . And you could tell, just from listening to the roughs, that this was something that no one had ever done before. I told him I got the same feeling as the first time I heard Pharoah Sanders’  Karma album. All the elements you’d heard before, but you never heard it put together the way Pharoah did on that record. I was transported listening to [Glasper’s] rough mixes. I know exactly where I was sitting. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.So if you want to really do the right thing for Blue Note Records, the worst thing you can do is have a bunch of people on the roster who are remaking 1960s records, even if they’re remaking Blue Note style stuff, even if you went into Van Gelder’s and cut it. That would be the antithesis of what the label was about. The label was about [recording] the people who reflected their times in their playing.