Rudy Van Gelder (1925-2016)

Rudy Van Gelder, pioneer recording engineer, creator of "the Blue Note sound" (and the many sounds that imitated it through the years), died at the age of 91 this week. Every true jazz fan and true audiophile has grown to venerate Van Gelder—at least the work he did in the 1950s and '60s for the innovative labels of the day: not just Blue Note but also Prestige, Impulse!, Riverside, New Jazz, and scattered others.

Van Gelder frequented the jazz clubs of New Jersey in his youth, and his goal, once he started recording musicians, was to capture the dynamics, warmth, and spaciousness of live music. The bands on Blue Note's roster—many of them, quintets with two horns and drummers with a thing for the hi-hat cymbal—showcased his techniques. The Blue Note sound, in its early incarnation, was pretty much the live sound of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

But this art didn't come naturally. Van Gelder may have been the first engineer to exploit the wonders of Neumann microphones and to push the levels as high as the tape of his day could absorb. Through the late 1950s, most of his albums were recorded in his parents' living room in Hackensack, New Jersey; it may be no coincidence that many of them are among his finest-sounding. After then he opened his own studio in nearby Englewood Cliffs, which he tweaked to replicate the homestead's resonances.

Van Gelder was hardly the only great jazz engineer on the scene in those days; he may not even have been the best. Other stellar figures included Fred Plaut at Columbia, Roy DuNann at Contemporary, Val Velantin at Verve, Roy Goodman at RCA. But the other labels didn't play up their engineers (Columbia covers never so much as mentioned Plaut), while Alfred Lion, Blue Note's proprietor, promoted Van Gelder's sound as a boutique blend—something of a mystique—and the other labels who hired him followed suit, as if to boast that they too had the special sauce.

The best Van Gelder recordings feature wonderful-sounding brass, bass walks, and cymbal shimmers, but one instrument he rarely got right was the piano, which, on most of his albums, sounds hooded. Some engineers suspect this was due to reflections over the piano, brought on by the shape and size of his parents' living room and, later, his studio. It may be significant, in this regard, that his best-sounding album (and one of his best musically too), Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, does not feature a piano. (Instead it has Bobby Hutcherson's vibes, which ring spectacularly.)

He was always secretive about his techniques. The gateway cover of one of his Impulse! albums, Gil Evans' Out of the Cool, features a diagram showing the location of the instruments and the types of microphones covering them. But when I once asked him about this, Van Gelder heatedly denied its accuracy, saying that the label's owner, Bob Thiele, made it all up. I don't know what's true. (Thiele had died well before this conversation.)

In the late 1960s, lured by the conveniences of new technology, Van Gelder latched on to multi-track recorders and limiters, then, earlier than many, digital. The quality took a dive. None of his albums sound bad, but from this point on, few sound distinctive. (There are exceptions, including, oddly, an obscure but terrific 1998 piano album by Chris Anderson, Solo Ballads.) Van Gelder's CD-reissue series, known as the RVG Editions, is a mixed bag as well.

But we come to praise Van Gelder, not to bury him, so here are just a few of his finest albums, sonically and musically, in no particular order. Besides Out to Lunch and Out of the Cool, there are Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool (in this case, the RVG CD only, which is the first and only version struck from the original master tapes), and Miles' mid-'50s quintet marathon sessions (Walkin', Workin', , etc.); John Coltrane's Blue Train, Soultrane, Impressions, Ballads, and A Love Supreme; Wayne Shorter's Juju and Speak No Evil; Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles; Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin'; Sonny Rollins' Newk's Time, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and Music from 'Alfie'; Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else; Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth; Lee Morgan's Vol. 3 and Search for the New Land; Andrew Hill's Point of Departure; Larry Young's Unity; Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song; Joe Henderson's Our Thing; Grant Green's Matador; Horace Parlan's Speakin' My Peace; Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue...and I'm probably leaving out a lot.

Quite a list.

Van Gelder's death coincides with the announcement from Music Matters—the LA-based house that reissues pristine, 180-gram vinyl pressings of Blue Note albums exclusively—is ending operations. MMJ's proprietors, Ron Rambach and Joe Harley, have pretty much run through the entire Blue Note catalog. (They reissued almost all of the Blue Notes listed above.) At first, they remastered the titles at 45rpm, the tracks spread out across two LPs. Then, to lower expenses and price tags, they switched to 331/3rpm—though, at the same time, employing better pressing gear, to the point where many of the slower-spinning albums sounded as good as the 45s, if not better. I would have liked to hear what 45s on the new gear sounded like, but we'll never know. There were nascent plans to reissue some titles as high-rez digital downloads, but the idea fell through.

An end of an era, all round then.

John Marks's picture

I know that CTI lacks the aficionado credibility of the Blue Note catalog, but, a few of the CTI Van Gelder albums have good or great music in superior sound.

My favorite being Jim Hall's "Concierto," jazz as chamber music, all live in the same room (excepting Hall's classical-guitar overdubs).

There were giants in the earth in those days.

john marks

Boogieman1's picture

Does anyone have a sense of how the Analogue Productions remasters compare to his original pressings?

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent tribute! FK.
I cannot imagine Jazz w/o RVG. A true visionary and recording pioneer- R.I.P.

zimmer74's picture

for a very informative eulogy. I was a young lad visiting my grandparents in the late-50's/early 60's, in Englewood Cliffs-no idea of the jazz history being made there. Yes, the RVG CD reissues vary a lot, and in my opinion, some of the US versions are better than the Japanese originals.

Out To Lunch is a true classic, and the Music Matters 33 RPM version is my favorite. By the way, two weeks ago I just got an email from MM, indicating that a final 13 titles are on the way--so it's not over quite yet, unless the situation has since changed.