Beat Odysseys: Steve Jordan on Recording with Mix Master Mike, Bettye LaVette and Robert Cray

Dean Budnick on August 31, 2020
Beat Odysseys: Steve Jordan on Recording with Mix Master Mike, Bettye LaVette and Robert Cray

Photo courtesy of Guitar Center

“Being an artist or a musician is a preexisting condition,” Steve Jordan reflects. “It’s not a smooth ride. There are some amazing highs, but there are also some deep valleys. You need to go through all of it. You don’t really have a choice.”

The drummer/songwriter/ producer describes these travails in conjunction with his role at the Jazz Foundation of America, the organization where he serves as artistic director alongside his wife, Meegan Voss.

One of Jordan’s current priorities is to help the JFA raise funds to support artists who are in need during the current COVID-19 crisis.

Jordan continues to balance his altruistic efforts with a range of creative endeavors. On August 28, Jay-Vee Records— the label Jordan founded with Voss—released Beat Odyssey 2020, an album of improvised turntable and drum soundscapes he created with Mix Master Mike. That same day, Verve issued Blackbirds, the second consecutive album Jordan’s produced for Bettye LaVette, following her 2018 Bob Dylan cover project, Things Have Changed. In addition, he recently worked with Robert Cray on this year’s That’s What I Heard and is already looking forward to releasing a record with The Verbs, his rock group with Voss, in early 2021.

What led you to record with Mix Master Mike?

I’ve been the musical director for the prime-time Emmys for about six or seven years. One year, I added a DJ to the orchestra to give it a lift and to add an element that had never been on television before. Then, the next year, Michael Bearden—our conductor and my co-musical director— recommended Mike. I was a big Beastie Boys fan before Mike started working with them—Paul’s Boutique is one of my favorite records—so I said, “Great.”

As soon as we started working together, I realized how incredible he was. I’d never seen anybody manipulate turntables like that, but he’s also a musicologist, so he’s pulling up all kinds of stuff that normal DJs just don’t do. It was another level.

Part of my job was to write cues for different points in the program, and I thought it’d be a great idea to work with Mike to come up with a couple. So we went into a studio in Los Angeles and cut some cues. But we also stayed a bit longer each day to record something for ourselves. We would have a vision—an idea or a tempo—and then we would just go for it. We did it two or three times and created 30 pieces of music each time. Initially, we planned to give them to different MCs and rappers to see what they could do over them.

But what became clear as we listened back was that the music stood on its own. It’s very cinematic, like little movie vignettes. When we get together, we can’t really tell you what’s going to happen in advance, but it just explodes.

You’ve worked with Robert Cray throughout his career. How has that collaboration evolved over the years?

Robert Cray is a national treasure. I first heard about him while I was vacationing in Jamaica with Keith Richards. I was down there looking to hear some of the heaviest reggae in the world—and I accomplished that for sure—but I also heard a lot of Robert Cray. He had just put out a couple of records on an independent label. I think Eric Clapton had turned Keith on to Robert, and Keith just loved his playing. Once I listened, I understood why. We worked together on Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Chuck Berry film. This was back in 1987 before “Strong Persuader” and “Smoking Gun.”

Then, Robert blew up and I didn’t see him for a number of years until, one thing led to another, and I ended up producing Take Your Shoes Off [which won the 2000 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album]. Basically, we’ve been good friends from that point on. I haven’t necessarily produced every record he’s made, but I’ve done a lot of records with him during the past twenty years.

He’s brilliant on a lot of levels so, while he’s an iconic guitar player, I don’t overuse that. I think that he’s equally as great of a singer. He has the same intention and intensity in his singing and his guitar playing. He also writes in a way that is unmistakably him—you can identify his guitar-playing, his songwriting and his singing. That’s a rare quality. It’s always a joy to work with him and, on top of that, he’s one of the most humble and nicest people you’ll ever meet.

How did you approach Bettye LaVette’s new album, Blackbirds?

The record pays tribute to some of Bettye’s favorite female singers and some of the records that she admired when she was coming up—people like Dinah Washington, Della Reese, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The songs are reimagined from their original recordings— they’re not just remakes. Bettye picked the songs and she has done a stunning job of interpreting them.

I’m excited about it because these songs hold a special meaning for her. Sometimes, when she reinterprets someone else’s material, she hasn’t really heard that much of it before, although she always has a knack of making a song her own. She’s a very special individual and a very special artist.

I approach working with Bettye as if I was working with Sinatra. They only need one or two takes because they’re going to bring it. They’re not warming up into it and they know what they’re going to do, so you’ve just got to be ready to capture whatever is going to happen. Whenever Bettye opens her mouth to sing, you can tell that this is the real deal.

You curated the “Red, White, Black & Blues” stream on What was your initial vision for that project?

[Relix publisher and FANS founder] Pete Shapiro had an idea for a live-performance program called “Red, Black, and Blue.” I said, “You know, maybe ‘Red, White, Black and Blues’ is more fitting because the blues is an American art form.” Obviously, the roots are in Africa and things later migrated from the Delta to the North but it was created here.

It’s deeply ingrained in today’s music. So when we talk about great artists—whether it’s Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin or Mahalia Jackson—their music encompasses blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, and the American art form of jazz. These artists and their peers inspired everything that we do right now. Without certain jazz and R&B samples, there would be no hip-hop. Without the blues, there wouldn’t have been the British Invasion. This music is the bedrock of popular culture—not just in America— but throughout the world, and I wanted to remind everyone of that.