The Van Gelder mystique

Music Matters Jazz, a new audiophile label, starts up this month, reissuing classic Blue Note albums on 180-gram virgin-vinyl LPs pressed at 45 rpm. The test pressings I’ve heard sound extremely promising. The people involved in the company certainly know what they’re doing (Joe Harley of AudioQuest, Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray of AcousTech, Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records, who is more familiar with the Blue Note vaults than anybody).

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.)

Tony's picture

I'm sure some of these reissues sound every bit as good as proclaimed, but I often feel this is more about having 9or more often, trying to have, gee-wiz sound, rather thana real intert in the music. Plus, how many $50 albums can one afford to buy? For the industrious, a lot of these original LPs are still available from used record shops and EBAY at a much lower price. Myabe this is strange coming from one who considers himself an audiophile (Quad speakers, tube amps, Rega TT, etc, but I find following my jazz appreciation makes more sense and is much more satisfying when focused on the music rather than such lab creations as 45 rpm Blue Notes as $50 a pop.

Ben's picture

If someone keep using the word neutral to describe good sound, I will kill myself. It is the single worst word ever used in the audiophile lexicon. Totally killed the fun of this hobby. Would you like to eat a neutral hamburger? Stop it already!

Mike's picture

I think the word neutral is fair to use, in the sense that you're trying to hear the author's intended sound without any "distortions"... but it's starting to be an overused term.- MikeSingle Property Websites

Mister Lopez's picture

Before one compares Rudy Van Gelder to a Columbia or RCA engineer, one should take into account his inherent lack of resources in comparison to these giant companies. (It also appears that you have the name wrong for the Columbia engineer that you speak so highly of...isn't it Fred *Plaut*?) I think it's fair to say that DuNann got a better piano sound, but IMHO Van Gelder's stereo records sound equally "haunting". You also criticize Van Gelder for placing his horns on the same side of the stereo field (something he only did in the early years when he was experimenting with stereo), but at least he always had the piano in the center and eventually moved the bass there. DuNann, on the other hand, for what appears to be the five short years he recorded for Contemporary, had a gaping hole in the middle of his stereo mixes with even more severe slam separation than Van Gelder on classics like Way Out West and Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. So I don't think that criticism of Van Gelder is fair. And sure, Riverside got a better piano sound also. You also mention Bill Evans when talking about Riverside, so if you're big on piano, I can understand your frustration with Van Gelder. I think it's great that you want to shine some light on the unsung heroes of classic jazz recording engineering, but I don't think there's any reason to chop down such a central figure in the process. To be frank, I think Van Gelder's piano sound drives a lot of audiophiles nuts and he gets thrown a lot of unfair criticism as a result. Van Gelder busted his hump to make sure we can all enjoy these performances for years to come and I think he deserves a little more respect.