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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.

Recording in the living room, rather than a purpose built studio, did create unique challenges. The room was a more intimate space, which musicians seemed to like, but it was also much smaller than a true studio. The instruments had to be positioned close together, leaving little if any space for baffling between them. A friend described it this way: 'Imagine trying to capture a piano cleanly with a microphone while Art Blakey is pounding away three feet to your left.' Indeed it was the piano that was affected the most by the environment. To minimize bleed-over, the microphones were placed very close to the strings. As a result, the notes were captured but the instrument sounded a little compressed. Rudy got the piano cleanly, but didn't always get the scale and any sense of the instrument in a physical space. The effect varies between recordings and eased over time, but that sonic signature remains the dead giveaway of an RVG recording. That anomaly is part of what makes a Van Gelder recording a Van Gelder recording.

By the time his actual studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ opened in July of 1959, recording first some tracks of Ike Quebec and then the inaugural album, Walter Davis Jr.'s Davis Cup, Van Gelder had already cut hundreds of now-legendary records featuring the eras top musicians: Monk, Mobley, Rollins, Blakey, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, and many, many more. That Van Gelder was able to begin his extraordinary career by making such exceptional recordings in the family living room is truly extraordinary.

The Music

No discussion of Rudy Van Gelder would be complete without a little music. We're not going to attempt the futile exercise of naming his "best" recordings. That would be impossible. There are so many, and the sound is so consistent, that personal preference will have to stand in for scientific method. Among hundreds of RVG recordings in my collection there are a few that really stand out, for a variety of reasons.

Monaural

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (Prestige 1959) is a relatively early monaural recording made in the living room in 1954. This is as good a mono Van Gelder recording as there is to hear. The sound is vivid.

This is the legendary session where Monk and Davis supposedly argued, and depending on who's telling he story, may have come to blows, after Davis told Monk to lay out while he was soloing. There have been so many variations on the story of this session—with multiple versions sometimes told by the same people -that it's really impossible to know what happened for sure. There was friction between the two—no one argues the point -but beyond that, who knows.

It was also one of the first records (a CD actually) that I purchased as a jazz newbie sometime in the early 1990s: maybe my second or third album. I knew who Miles Davis was, of course, and I had this vague awareness from somewhere in the ether of a guy with a really strange name: Thelonious Monk. I'd never heard any of Monk's music, and I didn't know a thing about him, but out of curiosity alone I bought the album. The first track, "The Man I Love" (Take 2), pulled me into jazz like nothing I'd heard before it, and very little I've heard since.

There's a section on the track where monk is taking his solo and, at least to my tender ears circa 1994, it just doesn't seem like it's getting off the ground. He's plinking a note here and plunking another there, but it's fractured, not building any momentum. It doesn't seem to be solidifying into anything coherent when Monk suddenly stops playing altogether, leaving the bass and drums continuing alone. Then, from somewhere off mic and recessed in the mix, Davis blows a nine-note phrase that Monk instantly latches on to, running with it to complete what ends up being a short but perfect statement. It's one of those magic moments of improvisational interplay that could just as easily have failed and wound up dead on the cutting room floor. Instead, it became -in my own utterly unqualified opinion -one of the greatest sixty-seconds in all of recorded jazz. From that record on I was more than interested, I was hooked!

For the ledger, while I was genuinely blown away by the interplay from the get go, at the time I also clearly recall thinking, 'Man, that piano player kinda stinks. Good think Miles was there to reel that back in.' Like I said: Newbie. In retrospect, I'm sure Monk meant to do that all along.

Stereo

Van Gelder began recording in stereo in mid 1957. For a short time he ran both stereo and mono tape decks simultaneously, before abandoning the later altogether. Some very famous records—John Coltrane's Blue Trane for example -were recorded this way, with both stereo and mono master tapes surviving. After abandoning the mono deck, single-channel records were produced by down-mixing stereo tapes into a mono pressing.

A great stereo record, and a relatively recent addition to the Blue Note catalog, is Hank Mobley's The Feelin's Good. This was a single-day session from March of 1963 that got cut up, with some tracks finding their way onto two other Mobley records and others being stuck on a shelf for decades in obscurity. As he was planning his Blue Note Records reissue series, Ron Rambach at Music Matters got the bright idea to re-assemble the parts and release them as the album they should have been in the first place. In the process, Rambach even managed to score a new Blue Note catalog number (BST-84401) making it official. This one is 45rpm vinyl only, so a turntable is required, but it's definitely worth hearing.

Mobley is joined by trumpeter Donald Byrd and a very young Herbie Hancock on piano for a studio-only ensemble. In an earlier review for AAJ I wrote, "The band never betrays its impermanence: the performance is flawlessly tight, as if staged by a regular working unit that's been playing the music night after night. Taken as a single performance, The Feelin's Good works remarkably well. There's a consistency to the writing and playing that clearly reveals a single artistic vision captured in time. It's less a collection of songs than a recital of sympathetic compositions." Hearing it today, it's hard to imagine why it was ever cut up in the first place.

It's also about as good a Van Gelder stereo recording as exists from that era. The piano anomalies are minimized, the horns are in your face realistic (if hard-panned left and right) and the drums snap and pop. The soundstage us enormous and there's discernable stage depth.

The Feelin's Good is a great record that only suffers from the limited number of people that will ever hear it. Even with the recent resurgent popularity of vinyl, records are still a niche, and Music Matters pressings—which are as good as vinyl gets—are a premium sub-niche within that niche. But if you've got a turntable, and the bread to get your hands on the album, The Feelin's Good is an instant classic. It just arrived fifty-two years late.

Digital (*GASP!!!* Say it ain't so!)

Ironically, for a guy whose success and reputation were built on engineering vinyl, Rudy Van Gelder didn't particularly like records. When digital recording equipment became available in the 1980s he became an early adopter. Still operating in the Englewood Cliff's studio, he'd also evolved as an engineer. The sonic hallmarks of the golden age diminished and the recordings became thoroughly modern.

A great album from this period is Charlie Rouse's Soulmates featuring Walter Davis Jr. on piano, Claudio Roditi on trumpet, and the always-exceptional Sahib Shihab on baritone saxophone. Recorded and 1988 and released in 1993 on the Uptown label, the album demonstrates how the classic Van Gelder sound had morphed. The piano is large and spacious, and the hard left/right panning that was typical in the early stereo records is gone in favor of a more natural arrangement. It's still a relatively early digital recording, so it's a bit dry sounding compared to say, an analog recording from 1955, but it's quite good overall. The album was released as a CD, with no vinyl ever produced.

It's a smoking good album, not the least because of the prominent presence of the shamefully under-recorded Sahib Shihab on baritone. As nearly as I can tell, Shihab only cut a dozen or so dates as a leader over a forty-plus year career, and those are great records. But much of his recording was done as a sideman on other people's records, most reliably in the 1960s and 70s in the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band: a great working unit to be sure, but not always the best setting in which to focus on an individual performer. Of course some of Shihab's sideman gigs were on exceptional records: John Coltrane's eponymous debut as a leader for example (Prestige, 1957). Shibab was a multi-woodwind player, but baritone is where he shone brightest. He was a musical contemporary of some other greats on the big horn—Gerry Mulligan, Cecil Payne, and Pepper Adams—but for some reason he never achieved recorded prominence the way they did. Every time I listen to Sahib Shihab on baritone I want to hear more, and Soulmates is a pretty good fix.

Rouse and Davis are in excellent form, and Roditi takes a few really good turns. There is some challenging material, notably Shihab's "DiDa" with its odd horn-piano-horn triplet introduction, and there's a good deal of counterpoint throughout. The improvisational interplay and harmonizing between Rouse and Shihab illuminates both of them; Shihab gets a lot of solo time; and the record may have some of Rouse's most spirited playing since his early years with Thelonious Monk. The two horns really seem to be feeding off each other. Davis—also grossly under-recorded—plays with the skill and taste you'd expect from a The Jazz Messengers alum.

As great as this record is, Soulmates is also bitter sweet. Rouse—who was likely already suffering from lung cancer when it was recorded -was dead just five months later, Sahib Shihab barely a year after that, and Walter Davis Jr. one year further on. Nevertheless, no one on the date betrays any sign of performing at anything less than their peak. It's an undeservedly neglected record.

Postscript

All three of these records are worth listening to simply because they are great music. The fact that they were all recorded over a span of thirty-four years by the same man, Rudy Van Gelder, is and should be secondary to the music itself. Yet his fingerprints are indelible, lingering like a benevolent unseen hand in the background.

One way to think about his contribution is by putting into a longer context. Live music is ephemeral. It exists in its own moment and then it's gone, lingering in the memory of people who were fortunate enough to hear it, or instantly fading into oblivion. Over 200,000 years of modern human history written music is a relatively recent thing, with the earliest written system of notation dating to about 2000 BC, and modern notation employing bars, measures and notes developing only about 1000 years ago. The first mechanical reproduction of sound came in the 1870s, with commercial applications gaining mass popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though we take it for granted today, the widespread ability to record music and replay it in the home is really only about 100 years old. That we live in the era that recording became, first, a reality at all, and then so easily accessible, is just dumb luck. We are—by accident of history—the fortunate ones.

Rudy Van Gelder recorded music for more than two thirds of that first century, innovating, improvising, and adopting new technology the entire time. He'll always be most firmly remembered for his contribution to the golden years of modern jazz, but he continued to record to the end of his life, almost seventy years from when he began as a hobbyist. It's unlikely that anyone else will ever be so closely associated with a single musical genre for such an extended period again, and certainly not in jazz, where musicians have embraced do-it-yourself recording and major record labels have far less influence than at any time in recent memory.

That's all the more reason to celebrate Rudy Van Gelder's contribution. In the context of the brief history of recorded music he was an enormously important and prolific practitioner. Plus, he had the Midas touch for capturing musicians in a way that let their individualism and personalities stand out in high relief. The records he made define jazz in a way that would be almost impossible to duplicate, and because of his efforts we all get to enjoy these performances in perpetuity: an extraordinary legacy.

Photo Credit: Mosaic Images, LLC

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