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The Giant Legacy of Rudy Van Gelder

Greg Simmons By

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Recording Engineer Rudy Van Gelder died at home of natural causes on August 25th at the age of 91. His legacy—and it's a big one—is the countless recordings he made during modern jazz's greatest period of innovation. Almost any jazz musician of note who was making records—especially if they were working on the east coast—was captured at some point with Van Gelder at the controls. Be-boppers, hard-boppers, post-boppers, soul jazz, free jazz, fusion—pick a sub category. If you want to know what was *happening* in music in the 1950s and 60s, find a few RVG recordings. They were it!

Gallons of ink have been spilled on Rudy since his passing last month, so forgive me for throwing a few extra drops. Reading his obit in the New York Times, and listening to his old records, I can't possibly understate how ubiquitous Rudy Van Gelder's fingerprints are on the music I enjoy virtually every day. If I haven't spun a stack of RVG records at the end of each week, it's because I was out of town. It seemed almost inconsiderate not to offer a few thoughts.

The albums he cut in his heyday restore musicians who've been gone, in many cases for decades: spirits reanimated through Neumann microphones and Scotch Tape (magnetic, not desktop) at the hands of a man who—at his best—captured musical events with such visceral realism that a listener in 2016 can be transported into a session that happened sixty years ago. Whatever secret sauce Rudy Van Gelder used—and he was by accounts reticent to share the ingredients—he had a gift for capturing those sessions, making sure musicians sounded their best.

The Van Gelder sound is eloquently summed up by Music Matters' Ron Rambach who wrote, "It was Rudy who instilled that special quality of warmth, presence, realism, clarity and a balanced tone across all elements of the typical jazz ensemble as it performed in a studio setting, literally shaping the sound of modern jazz itself through his painstaking studio work. You have only to listen to anything Van Gelder touched to learn that. He didn't simply record the sound, but captured the feeling behind it."

If records were babies Family Court would have had Rudy's picture on a most-wanted poster, thick glasses and all. I've never seen anything purporting to be an accurate count of every session he ever recorded, but he cut between 400 and 500 records for Blue Note alone, plus his work for the other major jazz labels, as well as a few classical and pop recordings. His discography surely measures into the thousands. Other engineers recorded jazz, of course, and many of them were excellent, but none came anywhere close to matching Rudy's sheer production output. Perhaps second only to the musicians themselves, Rudy Van Gelder may be the man most responsible for crafting the sound of jazz.

At some point in his early years Van Gelder had attempted to learn to play the trumpet, but by his own admission his talents lay elsewhere. He never lost his attraction to music though, and he fed that attraction by embracing recording and engineering, which, as it turned out, he had enormous talent for. Initially he pursued recording as an amateur enthusiast, though he was a little more invested in his pastime than the average hobbyist. In the early 1950s he was essentially supporting his recording pastime with his day job as an optometrist. He claimed to have purchased only the second of the superior Neumann microphones sold in the United States in the late 1940s, and he also made a significant early investment in an Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck, which cost the equivalent of around $20,000 in today's dollars. He acquired both when the rest of the recording industry had yet to adopt either.

His breakthrough into professional recording came in 1953 when baritone saxophonist Gil Melle played a Van Gelder tape of himself for Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note records. Lion liked what he heard and began using the nascent professional engineer for commercial session recordings. Other labels soon followed and Van Gelder built reliable relationships with the most important jazz labels of the 1950s and 60s, a clientele, which in addition to Blue Note, included Prestige, Savoy, and Bethlehem, then later Impulse, CTI, and others.

Unlike many recording engineers, Van Gelder took ownership of the entire recording and post-recording process short of actually pressing the records. He manipulated the recording mixer in real time to—for example—compensate for Sonny Rollins walking around his mic instead of playing into it (Newk's Time BST-84001). All of the sessions were cut live to one-track and later two-track tape, and editing, if it needed to be done at all, was minimal and performed with the blade of a knife. The lathes that converted that sound from the tape to the stamper were also operated in Van Gelder's shop, generally by his own hand. By managing the entire process he could ensure that the final records sounded as close as possible to they way they had on the tape, and each record bore his hallmark: a small 'RVG' written, and later stamped, into the dead wax. He took great pride, in his own words, in how "to make the musicians sound the way they want to be heard."

Incredibly, for his first six years or so as a professional engineer, recording sessions were held in his parents, Sarah and Louis Van Gelder's living room. He'd move the furniture aside and set up chairs, microphones and cables where he needed them. Period photos, particularly ones taken by Francis Wolf for Blue Note, show the Van Gelder 'studio' for what it was: a family room complete with his mother's lamps and drapes. The room had a window cut through an interior wall to a bedroom that was used as the recording booth. Van Gelder's parents must have been supportive considering the constant stream of musicians coming through the house, often into the wee hours of the morning. Blue Note's Alfred Lion, in particular, preferred to record at night. Thelonious Monk named a song, Hackensack, for the place.

The overall sound of the early recordings is warm and immediate, but with hard edges where they're required—the ripping vibrations of a saxophone, for example. Drums are dynamic, resonant, and often loud, but balanced, never overpowering the rest of the instruments. Horns sound as though they're connected to living breathing musicians, with spit and the occasional gasping included. On the best of these recordings the aural imaging is bigger than life. Turn out the lights and close your eyes and it's easy to imagine Hank Mobley blowing right in front of you.
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