|Rudi Van Gelder, 1924 – 2016|
I first became aware of RVG when buying and listening to Riverside recordings, though his first efforts were with Blue Note, not easily available unless an import in the early days, in the early fifties when he was still an optometrist by profession and only worked in evenings in his converted studio in his parents' house.
He continued to practice as an optometrist as he believed that he could not make a living being a sound engineer; he did not become a full time engineer until 1959.
A long time jazz fan and a bit trumpet player, he believed he could improve the sound of recordings by updating and improving the recording equipment. When he went full time he moved to what was to be his base for life, a bespoke built recording studio at Englewood Cliffs not all that far from his original studio. Soon Prestige and later Verve came on board with Blue Note in using RVG's facility. His thorough preparation and the best equipment brought in the clients: he treated the studio like an operating theatre, no food or drink and no touching microphones etc. Rudi himself wore gloves when handling equipment; it was this attention to detail that earned his reputation as the finest recording engineer of the jazz genre.
In 1967 Alfred Lions the Blue Note producer who first employed Rudi retired and the new owners of Blue Note, Liberty Records started to use other engineers as did Prestige. After this period his output slowed but he was always involved in the recording of jazz into the 2000s.
He did have his critics, why I am not qualified to say but some few said his sound distorted that which they gave out. Charles Mingus was amongst those who criticised saying Van Gelder ruined his sound and would have nothing to do with him, but I believe for us consumers the quality that he put into those 2000-some recordings far outweighs any criticism, and one only has to listen at the sounds before Van Gelder came along: many were dreadful, and we should be eternally grateful to the man for dragging sound engineering out of the last century.
His discography as one would imagine is extensive to say the least and among his albums are recognised jazz classics such as Coltrane's “A Love Supreme”, Horace Silver's “Song for my Father”, Sonny Rollins' “Saxophone Colossus” and many' many others including virtually everything Freddie Hubbard did.
In an interview in later life he said this….
“The biggest distorter is the LP itself. I've made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes going simultaneously, and I'm glad to see the LP go. As far as I'm concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don't like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engineer. That's why some digital recordings sound terrible, and I'm not denying that they do, but don't blame the medium.“
So much for the “vinyl is better theory”, something I have never subscribed to for a variety of reasons. Rudy Van Gelder died at his home by the studio in 2016 aged 91.
These are just a few selected tracks from Van Gelder engineered recordings.
Johnny Griffin tenor sax in 1956 at the old studio, playing The Way You Look Tonight with Wynton Kelly on piano and Max Roach on drums.
I cannot leave out John Coltrane and “Acknowledgment” from the "A Love Supreme" album:
The title track from Stanley Turrentine's 1973 “Don’t Mess with Mr T” album, a large ensemble including Ron Carter bass, Randy Brecker trumpet, Pepper Adams baritone, and various string and electronic instruments:
Jackie McLean was always labeled a Charlie Parker disciple, yet his output was a lot more than that, this ‘59 recording is not his best nor is the album “Swing Swang Swinging” but this number has his style all over it: “What's New“...
Maiden Voyage was a very successful album for Herbie Hancock in his “jazz” days with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, George Coleman tenor, Ron Carter bass - the man is everywhere and with good reason, and Tony Williams drums, recorded in 1965:
1963 saw Lee Morgan trumpet make this very popular album. This is the title track from the album “Sidewinder” with Joe Henderson tenor, Barry Harris piano, Billy Higgins drums and Bob Cranshaw bass:
And finally “Autumn Leaves” from one of the finest of all modern jazz albums, Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 recording of Somethin’ Else, featuring Miles Davis, Hank Jones piano, Sam Jones bass and Art Blakey drums: