Rudy Van Gelder: The Greatest Recording Engineer in Jazz History

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Rudy Van Gelder has obtained the title as “The Greatest Recording Engineer in Jazz History.” Born back in November 1924, Gelder is residing in the Englewood Cliffs, where he still produces some of the most dynamic Jazz music in American music history. Since 1999, he has been re-mastering the analog Blue Note recordings he produced some decades ago. Rudy was thrilled when he discovered that he had the opportunity to re-master his old tapes. This is an example of a man who truly has a passion for his line of work. The re-masters gave Rudy the chance to present his version of how those early recordings could sound with today’s technology.

With his formal training in Optology, Rudy developed a deep seeded interest in engineering when he and his friends visited a radio station (WCAU) in downtown Philadelphia. After touring the stations’ control room, Rudy decided this was the line of work that he wanted to specialize in. Out of his parents living room, he began by recording sessions of his friends who were trumpet, piano, and clarinet players. People in his neighborhood began calling to book sessions, and the rest is history. Under stunning circumstances, Gelder had met Alfred Lion, a Jewish German-born American record executive who had co-created Blue Note Records in 1939. Alfred had heard one of Rudy’s recording sessions, and had liked it so much that he decided to put it out on a 10 inch LP. When it came time to release another record, Alfred knew that he had to contact Rudy to help him create the same sound that he heard before. From that point on, “[Rudy] was responsible for just about every session off the Blue Note label from 1953 to 1967, (among thousands of others), encompassing some of jazz’s most groundbreaking and enduring classics” (http://www.allmusic.com/artist/rudy-van-gelder-mn0000305301/biography).

Blue Note Records was known as the “Hard Bop” jazz label because it maintained Soul and Bop Jazz artists. In 1966, Blue Note was sold to Liberty Records, and then in 1968, Liberty Records was sold to Transamerica who also owned United Artists with its own music division. The name “Blue Note and Liberty” were later reissued, but merely for marketing strategies, which many people feel drove it down as second-rate. If that weren’t bad enough, Transamerica had no Rudy Van Gelder, which is most likely why the label was never as successful from that point forward. (http://londonjazzcollector.wordpress.com/record-labels-guide/labelography-2/blue-note-records-history/).

Van Gelder (Left) with Alfred Lion (Right).

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Rudy Van Gelder was working double-time as an Optometrist by day, and a Recording Engineer by night. Shortly after his run in with Alfred Lion, Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records came into Rudy’s office inquiring about recording for his label. In good spirits, Van Gelder accepted the offer, and began recording for two separate labels. Throughout his career, Rudy Van Gelder worked with outstanding producers, such as Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records (established in 1949) and Creed Taylor of CTI Records (founded in 1968). Van Gelder recorded countless gifted musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith, George Benson, Thad Jones, Chick Corea, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, etc. The list truly goes on and on.

Here’s a picture of Van Gelder with Wes Montgomery; Jazz Guitarist. 

Once the tapes were recorded after a session, Rudy would take the tapes, and transfer them to a “Scully” (which was a machine that  was used to make the masters for all the LPS of the era.) He would take a blank Lacquer disc, put it on the lathe, and attach the suction device in the center of the disc. Beneath the disc, there were holes on the precision table that would create a vacuum suction-like system. The Scully’s cutter would rest over the edge of the disc, and the rest of the machine could be activated. The sound was transferred to the cutter head, which would in turn move the cutting stylus. Technically, this process explains how the sound was engraved into the surface of the lacquer disc (12 inch LP). This master was then sent to a plant that made pressings that could then be mass produced.

The Original Mastering Scully 

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After listening to quite a few works by Van Gelder, I decided to look deeper into a piece of music by The Hank Mobley Quartet called Hello, Young Lovers. The track stars Hank Mobley on Tenor Sax, Wynton Kelly on Piano, Paul Chambers on Bass, and Philly Joe Jones on Drums. Hello, Young Lovers was recorded in 1961 with quite magnificent intelligibility.  I thoroughly appreciate that Van Gelder’s music is (and had to be) recorded in one take, meaning everything was recorded live. This recording tactic proves the talent of the musician, unlike today, where everything can be recorded in small bits and pieces until it sounds just “right.” With today’s recording techniques, a piece of musicianship lost. That is why music like Miles Davis, or Hank Mobley’s Quartet is something quite special.

Something I noticed right off the bat was that no instruments are fighting with one-another. I was quite clearly aware of this after listening through this album; Another Workout. One never struggles to hear the individual instruments. There are no frequency-sharing issues that occur anywhere within the mix. This gives an effortless chromatic vibe, and creates a sense of easy listening for the audience. Additionally, there are no “unbelievable” sounding effects on the individual instrument tracks. In a sense, today’s plug-ins enhance, and at times, falsify a musicians performance. At the beginning of Hello, Young Lovers, the piano wisps gently along with the kick and snare to introduce the main voice; the tenor saxophone. The kick itself is under-powered, which serves this piece quite well. If it were louder in the mix, it may frequency-fight with the bass, or perhaps, muddy up the saxophone. The timbre of the sax is incredibly warm and smooth, and its placed heavier towards the Left speaker. The piano and drums tie for the second loudest element, and the bass (front and center) is much quieter. The individual drum components have nice stereo spread and width between both speakers, while the piano leans more towards the right. When the piano hits the stage for its spotlit solo, it peaks above the drums and swing dances next to the bass, rhythmically driving the music forward. In this mix, the bass’s midrange glimmers, and each string is plucked with a natural attack.

I look at the entire piece of music almost like the perfect game of Jenga; a game physical and mental skill.  The objective is to remove a block from a tower and place it on the top (which becomes more and more unstable the more blocks you add). Rudy Van Gelder’s mix in this piece is effortless: each discrete instrument is stacked upon one-another with blooming sturdiness.  If any element were to be louder or quieter, perhaps the amazing-mix-tower would fall to the ground. Or, the mix would not be as highly regarded in the world of Music Production and construction. Rudy Van Gelder is a self-taught engineer who brought the art of jazz recording to a whole new level of respect and clarity. To this day, none have been able to challenge his signature technique. It will be interesting to see if and when the next prodigy arises!

Here’s another brilliant track by Hank Mobley, called Me ‘N You. This piece (and album called “No Room for Squares” was released in 1963.) The track stars Mobley on the Tenor Sax, Lee Morgan and Donald Byrd on the Trumpet, Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock on the Piano, John Ore and Butch Warren on the Bass, and Philly Joe Jones on the Piano. Go ahead and enjoy the album here!

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5 comments

  1. This is wonderful, Rachel. I came to the end and just wanted to add the intense expressionism of Coletrane’s Ascension from 1965. I would be so curious to know what the studio techs thought as this was being played. How were the instruments to be blended, what aspects of timbre were to be emphasized or muted and so on. If you ever get a chance….and some time to focus…. put on the earphones and play a good recording of it. Remember the times….Civil Rights/Human Rights, the term “Negro” being challenged by Malcolm X as having too many slave associations and “Afro-American” or, simply the translation of “Black” soon to cause a self-redefining moment. “Ascension” surely reflected the times in it’s beauty, ugliness, and intensity.

    Here’s a sample http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HemZWfbpIo

  2. Excellent analysis, Rachel. I especially like that you create a biographical foundation first, then speak to some of the techniques used, such as the lacquer master cutting, and finally give a thoughtful and thorough analysis of Workout. Listen to these recordings is mind-expanding, isn’t it!?

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