August 26, 2016

ALL THAT JAZZ #41

Rudy Van Gelder, Audio Engineer Who Helped Define Sound of Jazz on Record, Dies at 91 (Peter Keepnews, 8/25/2016, NY Times)

Rudy Van Gelder, an audio engineer whose work with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and numerous other musicians helped define the sound of jazz on record, died on Thursday at his home, which doubled as his studio, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his assistant, Maureen Sickler.

Mr. Van Gelder, as he took pains to explain to interviewers, was an engineer and not a producer. He was not in charge of the sessions he recorded; he did not hire the musicians or play any role in choosing the repertoire. But he had the final say in what the records sounded like, and he was, in the view of countless producers, musicians and listeners, better at that than anyone.

The many albums he engineered for Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse and other labels in the 1950s and '60s included acknowledged classics like Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," Davis's "Walkin'," Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," Sonny Rollins's "Saxophone Colossus" and Horace Silver's "Song for My Father."

I don't know anything about the technical aspects of recording sound, but I know the sound of a Rudy Van Gelder recording.  The unique timbre of each instrument is captured distinctly and cleanly, and yet they all blend together with a beautiful warmth.  Also, there is no doubt about the spatial relationship of the players...as I write this, I'm listening to "Lester Left Town" from The Big Beat (for all of the great artists he recorded over the years, when I think of Van Gelder, I first think of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers).  I can picture the band right in front of me: Lee Morgan (on the left) and Wayne Shorter (to Lee's right) front the band, with Bobby Timmons and his piano on the far left, Jymie Merritt on bass behind the horns and Blakey to the back right.  (Sure, I know that that's a pretty standard set-up for a jazz quintet, but when RVG is at the sound board, you really hear it in the recording.  The relative space between the players "feels" right and it seems like you're sitting right in front of the band in the studio.)  Finally, the dynamics are captured with extraordinary sensitivity.  You can hear it right from the start in "Lester Left Town": the barely audible woodpecker-like rim shots that Blakey lays down after the first phrase from the horns become a little louder after that phrase is repeated, and then as the tune moves on, Blakey bashes the cymbals at a little higher volume, and he then turns around first 16-bars into the second 16 with a short press roll that in just a beat or two crescendos and crashes like a wave onto shore.   It all sounds so unprocessed that one might be fooled into concluding that there's not much skill involved in placing place a few mikes in a room of great musicians and hitting the "record" button.  But comparing Van Gelder's work to that of pretty much every other engineer who ever made a jazz record proves that isn't the case.  And that may be his real genius -- in creating recordings that were so faithful to the sound of the musicians and so clearly devoid of any mixing, compression, distortion or other engineer-imposed effects, he paradoxically created a "sound" for which he became famous.

The last few ATJ's have been bittersweet celebrations due to the deaths in quick succession of Bobby Hutcherson, Toots Thielemans and Rudy Van Gelder, but I hope to have some happier posts coming up, including the celebration of Sonny Rollins 86th (!) birthday in a couple of weeks, my long-gestating review of an Aaron Diehl album that was released last year and some recordings of music from my favorite jazzy-but-not-jazz musical "Guys and Dolls."


Posted by at August 26, 2016 7:45 AM

  

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