The Van Gelder mystique
But here’s an irreverent thought: Rudy Van Gelder wasn’t the only great jazz recording engineer of the 1950s and ‘60s. Here’s another: He wasn’t the greatest engineer, either.
Yes, Van Gelder created a “Blue Note sound”—the balanced horns, the hot hi-hat, the juicy ambience. (He created the same sound for many albums around that time on Verve and Impulse!) But he often muffled pianos and bunched horns in one channel (as opposed to spread out across the soundstage—I think this is why some ‘philes prefer mono Blue Notes).
Don’t get me wrong: Van Gelder was a terrific, pioneering engineer; and Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s founder, signed some of the most adventurous jazz musicians of the day, a remarkable feat, given that, at the time, Blue Note was a small, indie label.
But Fred Haupt was making more tonally vivid recordings at Columbia, featuring Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Roy DuNann was making spookily you-are-there albums at Contemporary, with Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, and early Ornette Coleman. Paul Goodman was doing the same at RCA with Rollins most notably, as was David Jones at Riverside, especially with Bill Evans.
Some of these albums have been given the 180-gram vinyl treatment over the past several years, by Acoustic Sounds or Classic Records. But many of those reissues are out of print (i.e., the licenses have expired), and very few, the most notable exception being Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard sessions on Riverside, were ever stamped out at 45 rpm.
One of the most jaw-dropping albums out there is Masterpieces by Ellington, the Duke’s first LP, recorded by Fred Haupt in mono in 1950. (Listen to the Columbia Legacy CD; you won’t believe how brilliant this thing is, musically and sonically!) It’s never been put out as an audiophile LP reissue, at any speed. Remedying this lapse should be somebody’s top priority!
Acoustic Sounds put out three albums that Art Pepper made in the ‘70s for John Snyder’s Artist House label—So in Love,, The New York Album, and The Intimate Art Pepper. These are all marvelous albums. But there’s more where they came from, including a spectacular Ornette Coleman-Charlie Haden duet album, Soapsuds, Soapsuds. Verve reissued this album on CD in the ‘90s; it sounded quite dim. The LP sounded terrific, and could sound even more terrific on the stampers they have today. Somebody should reissue it on vinyl.
Now for a tip. Briefly in the 1970s and ‘80s, a handful of Japanese labels—most notably Sony and JVC—made several direct-to-disc jazz albums. If you managed to buy some during their even briefer US releases (as I did), you know these are some of the most staggeringly realistic albums ever made. Last year, Columbia put out a CD of Herbie Hancock’s The Piano, a solo album that he recorded D-2-D. The CD was mastered from the back-up digital tapes. But Mark Wilder, Columbia’s engineer, told me that the 12-inch plates are still in Sony’s vaults in Tokyo. If someone could manage to gain the rights, he could stamp out several batches of new direct-to-disc LPs! Is this possible? It’s a gorgeous album, in every way.
Another one worth looking for: a quartet album by tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin, called Trackin’, which featured his wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, on piano and Shelley Manne on drums. It’s D-2-D and 45 rpm. It sounds ridiculously great!
I could go on and on, and so could most collectors of jazz albums. It’s time to broaden the search, time to stop getting all hushed around the Van Gelder mystique. If that’s sacrilege, then at least explore his catalogue a bit more deeply. Unless I’m mistaken, no audiophile company has made an LP of Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth or his wonderful, little-known collaboration with Sonny Rollins, Music from “Alfie”. Or how about Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, his 1961 classic quartet date with Eric Dolphy? This is some of the most ecstatic jazz ever recorded. I would slobber to acquire this set on 45 rpm. A four-CD box-set of the complete Vanguard sessions came out on Impulse! a few years ago. That would probably amount to eight or ten 45 rpm LPs. Anyone interested in pressing this? Sign me up for a purchase, if you are.
(PS: A reader writes in to remind me that both Oliver Nelson albums were reissued on LP by Speakers Corner. OK, then. Someone should put them out as 45s.)