In conversation with rudy van gelder
By Andy Karp
courtesy of Mosaic Images
Although Rudy Van Gelder’s name usually appears in small type among the credits on a jazz CD, it is writ large in the annals of jazz. As the engineer who recorded such seminal albums as John Coltrane's Blue Train and A Love Supreme, Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus , Miles Davis' Workin', Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay, and Hank Mobley's Soul Station, Van Gelder is revered by jazz fans the world over. The timeless music he captured and the sonic qualities of his recordings define the sound of small group jazz in the 1950s and ’60s. Yet that sound—clear, detailed, dimensional and, above all, musical—remains fresh and is still admired and emulated.
A native and lifelong resident of New Jersey (“the birthplace of recorded sound,” as he proudly points out), Van Gelder continues to work from the studio and home he has maintained in Englewood Cliffs for nearly 50 years. He remains active, recording the music he loves by combining old-school savvy with the latest digital technology. Recent projects include remastering many of his classic Blue Note recordings and making new recordings such as Just Between Friends, a duo album on HighNote by bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter and tenor saxophone giant Houston Person.
Long acknowledged by musicians and fans as the dean of jazz recording engineers, Van Gelder received even wider recognition this past October when the National Endowment for the Arts honored him as a 2009 NEA Jazz Master.
Van Gelder recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from Jazz.com’s Andy Karp about his landmark recordings, the notable producers he’s worked with, and his artistic legacy.
What sonic characteristics do you strive for in your recordings?
Aside from all the mechanical details, I personally prefer recordings which have a sense of space. The degree of that relates to the characteristics of the music.
Have those characteristics changed over the years?
Yes, the characteristics have changed over the years. In the very early years, of course, there was just mono. I believed then—as I do now—that the sense of space adds to the effect of the music. People have said to me that even in my mono recordings they feel a sense of space, and I agree with that. Spatial characteristics are not related to stereo only. Over time the characteristics of the music changed, and that controls what I have to do to create a presentable picture.
What recordings other than the ones you did yourself do you most admire for their sound quality?
It depends on what time period you're referring to. During the years before Sony acquired Columbia, when the original Columbia 30th Street studio existed, I liked virtually everything I heard out of there. Engineers Fred Plaut, Frank Laico, and Bud Graham … I admired almost all I heard coming out of that place.
Which of your own recordings are you most proud of?
Generally I like the recordings that I made for Creed Taylor: Freddie Hubbard, Don Sebesky, Jobim, Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery, Quincy Jones' Walking In Space, including the song “Killer Joe.” For Blue Note: Blue Train, Sidewinder, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, and many others. For Prestige: Miles Davis's Walkin’, Miles with Red Garland, Sonny Rollins. For Impulse: Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Stan Getz. The latter-day organ players from Prestige and Blue Note: Groove Holmes, Jimmy Smith, and others. With regard to remastering, the Miles Davis Capitol recording of Birth Of The Cool.
What were some of your most memorable recording sessions?
Again, the orchestral recordings for CTI, Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
What do you regard as the most important advances in recording technology in recent years?
The most significant in its effect on the music has been multitrack. The other is the capability to record audio digitally.
Today I still use the microphones I used years ago. As far as the rest of the chain, up through and including speakers, today's equipment is light years ahead of what I had available years ago. More reliable, more accurate. What more could a recording engineer want?
What modern recording techniques or technology do you wish you’d had available in the 1950s and ’60s?
All of it.
Many of your classic sessions for Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige were recorded live in the studio. Do you still consider this to be the optimal way to record jazz as opposed to multitracking?
No, not at all. Today I do not consider two-track recording to be the best way to record jazz. The reason for this is that musicians have 'Darwinized' or evolved to rely on the multitrack environment. When multitrack was first available, I thought it was great. I didn't have to do a perfect mix on the session. I could always remix it at a later time in a search for perfection. However, it wasn't too long before the musicians discovered multitrack was an opportunity to correct their performances, and today, they invariably ask me to do that. Now we have a whole generation of musicians, and I'm referring to jazz now, who expect me to do that. So the whole concept of an improvised jazz performance has morphed into a studio session that involves overdubbing or fixing. I really shouldn't be judgmental about this, so I will say it's not good or bad, it's just different.
What aspects of today’s recording technology have improved the sound of jazz recordings, and what aspects have had a negative impact?
I can only speak for myself. Every aspect of current recording technology is positive for me. The ability to record without tape hiss, very low distortion if you know how to do it, much easier editing—my side of the story is just great, I have no complaints. I'm enjoying it all.
When remastering your original recordings for CD release, how have you used digital technology to enhance the sound of your original analog recordings?
The advent of the CD allowed the listener to hear on his home system the sound of the speakers in the control room during the recording session, very closely, for the first time. Soon after that, when listening to other people's remastering of recordings I had made, I realized something was wrong. There was a disconnect between the sound of the CDs that were being made and my recollection of the original recording sessions with the original producers. The fact that I was listening in the digital domain made it very obvious to me. I would think to myself, 'Hey, that's not the way we did it.' Everyone listened to these early CDs, but there was very little relationship to the sound of the sessions. When I was asked to do the remastering, that was my first opportunity to give my version of it. My version, using digital technology, enables me to closely approach the way the speakers in the control room sounded during the original sessions.
What recording projects have been especially challenging for you?
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme really worked. Generally, though, the so-called avant-garde music of that time, the 1960s, and the concept of multiple improvisations with no structure known to me, impaired my ability to fall asleep on the sessions.
How has your work been impacted by the different styles of producers you’ve worked with? For example, Alfred Lion versus Bob Thiele versus Creed Taylor?
Alfred Lion of Blue Note had a way of working that was totally different from Bob Thiele of Impulse, Bob Weinstock of Prestige, and Creed Taylor [of Impulse and CTI]. Alfred Lion came to the sessions very well prepared, and the musicians were rehearsed. He knew pretty well how he wanted the finished record to be before he even came to the session, particularly with regard to the music and the way the individual players sounded.
Bob Thiele was an experienced record producer in the pop field before he came to me. In the early days he used to have a jazz radio program, which I listened to as a kid. He knew a lot of the big stars, and had a fine sense of what a good jazz player was. Creed Taylor knew the jazz players and wanted to present them in a setting that would appeal to a wider audience. Larger orchestras, more chance for interesting sounds—that provided exciting challenges for me. Bob Weinstock, on the other hand, liked small group jazz, was a jazz fan and was much more relaxed. He let the musicians dictate the way the session went.
In order to deliver what the producers expected, I always tried to vary what I did to fit what they had in mind. I tried to avoid the concept of recording the way I wanted to. I tried to adapt to what the individual producer was trying to do.
What are current recording activities and projects are you involved in?
Most of what I've been doing nowadays is remastering sessions that I did for Blue Note, Prestige, and others. As for new recordings, I like the most recent Houston Person/Ron Carter duo, Just Between Friends, that I did for HighNote.
Can you detect a Van Gelder influence on any recent jazz recordings?
Yes, absolutely. Most of them. Someone recently told my assistant, 'Rudy's DNA is in every jazz recording made today.'
Much of the jazz you recorded in the 1950s and ’60s has stood the test of time. Did you have a sense when you made those recordings that you were capturing music that might have lasting quality and beauty?
Yes. All during that time I had the feeling that we were doing something important. More than the daily newspapers, more than politics. I felt we were doing something significant.