How Rudy Van Gelder Shaped the Sound of Jazz as We Know It
By NATE CHINENAUG. 26, 2016
Rudy Van Gelder, in 1988. He remained active in engineering, bringing his hand to “Chemistry,” an album released this summer, by the tenor saxophonist Houston Person and the bassist Ron Carter. James Estrin/The New York Times
When a musical hero of towering influence dies, the urge is to go straight to the tape: recordings, footage, a captured moment that stands in for the unwieldy fullness of a life.
This commemorative twitch — wearily familiar in our year of losses, from David Bowie to Prince to, just last week, the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson — is especially well suited to the memory of Rudy Van Gelder, whose legend was shaped within the confines of his recording studio. Mr. Van Gelder, who died on Thursday at 91, was the most revered recording engineer in jazz — the man behind the curtain on thousands of albums and the chief architect of the storied “Blue Note sound.” He shaped the way we hear the music and the way we want it to be heard.
So it’s natural, now, to look for some trace of Mr. Van Gelder in the brilliant recordings he made, either at his first home studio in Hackensack, N.J., or at his second, in nearby Englewood Cliffs. It’s natural, and it’s also maddening, because so much of what he did was intangible. You hear it, you feel it, but his signature was etched in invisible ink. What is it, exactly, that you’re listening for? Naturalism? Warmth? The sound of a room?
“Some musicians sounded more real on your recordings than they would in a club,” the pianist and writer Ben Sidran ventured in 1985 in a rare interview with Mr. Van Gelder, who seemed to agree. He replied, “A great photographer will really create his image, and not just capture a particular situation.”
In that light, here’s a small assortment of images — just a few personal favorites from Mr. Van Gelder’s oceanic body of work.
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The first comes from “Blue Train,” the 1958 album by the saxophonist John Coltrane. Mr. Van Gelder’s more celebrated work with Coltrane came later, with “A Love Supreme,” on the Impulse! label. But what you hear on “Moment’s Notice,” which was taped to two-track mono, shows how he could evoke a band’s sound in physical space. Notice the transition between solos, especially from Lee Morgan’s swashbuckling trumpet to Paul Chambers’s bowed bass.
“Moment’s Notice,” by Coltrane:
It so happens that Mr. Van Gelder died on Wayne Shorter’s 83rd birthday. That coincidence sent me immediately to my vinyl reissue of “Speak No Evil,” which Mr. Shorter recorded in 1964. (It was released on Blue Note in 1966.) One thing I’ve always loved about the sound of this track is the way that Herbie Hancock’s piano (silvery, crisp) plays against Elvin Jones’s drums and cymbals (earthy, dark), while perfectly supporting the horns.
“Speak No Evil,” by Mr. Shorter:
“Ready, Rudy?” was something jazz musicians routinely said from Mr. Van Gelder’s studio floor, and the phrase became a kind of an in-joke, the title of a tune by Duke Pearson. Here, on the first track of “Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet,” we hear a less standard but more famous bit of studio chatter, as Davis rasps, “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.” That offhandedness provides much of the charm of these sessions, for Prestige; Coltrane even begins his tenor-saxophone solo away from the microphone, as if stepping up to the plate.
“If I Were a Bell,” by the Miles Davis Quintet:
Mr. Van Gelder was also the sonic mastermind behind CTI Records, Creed Taylor’s stylish crossover label. The sound of these albums was warm and luxurious, and while there are many tracks to choose from, my instinctual pick would be the title track of “Red Clay,” the hit 1970 album by the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. It has a jumping-out-of-your-speakers tenor saxophone solo by Joe Henderson, along with a neon-funky rhythm section: Mr. Hancock on electric piano, Ron Carter on electric bass, Lenny White on drums.
“Red Clay,” by Mr. Hubbard:
The enormity of Mr. Van Gelder’s midcentury output can make it easy to forget how active he remained in our own time. (One of his most recent credits is “Chemistry,” by the tenor saxophonist Houston Person and Mr. Carter — an album released this summer.) Christian Scott was a firebrand trumpeter still in his mid-20s when he recorded his second album, “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow,” at Mr. Van Gelder’s studio in 2010. “Jenacide (the Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Bloodless Revolution)” is a politically charged track from the album, and its sound — that mix of electric guitar and tambourine — feels both raw and refined.
“Jenacide (the Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Bloodless Revolution),” by Mr. Scott:
Finally, another sentimental offering. Many of Mr. Hutcherson’s finest recordings were made with Mr. Van Gelder behind the controls. “Out to Lunch,” the 1964 album by the multireedist Eric Dolphy, is full of these moments. Listen to how well the recording captures Mr. Hutcherson’s muted clangs and chiming overtones — along with the bleats, harrumphs and gargles of Mr. Dolphy’s bass clarinet, and the deep gravitas of Richard Davis’s bass. There’s a quintet on this track, but on some level you’d have to credit Mr. Van Gelder as an essential member of the band.
“Hat and Beard,” by Mr. Dolphy: