Rudy Van Gelder: Architect of the Blue Note Sound

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By Bradley Bambarger <2018>

Some of the greatest recordings in jazz history — by such artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock — were made in the unlikely locale of suburban New Jersey. It was in his studios there that Rudy Van Gelder engineered albums for, most famously, Blue Note Records in the 1950s and ’60s. Van Gelder was the architect of what become known as “the Blue Note sound,” which author Richard Havers described in Uncompromising Expression, his book on Blue Note, as a sound so present that it “makes you feel as if it were recorded just a few minutes before you hear it, almost as though the musicians were next door.”

Achieving such musical realism on record was both a science and an art: “part technology, part architecture… part alchemy.” The rich detail of the drums, the organic tone of the double-bass, the warmth of the piano and the ravishing, almost vocal sound of horns and guitar — all that was lightning Van Gelder bottled for future generations to enjoy.

Van Gelder didn’t only engineer magical sessions for Blue Note. Working in the heyday of recorded jazz, he set the standard by capturing artists for such other top labels as Prestige, Riverside, Verve and Impulse. The classic albums Van Gelder put to tape include Coltrane’s Blue Train and A Love Supreme, Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. But the list goes on and on, with Van Gelder recording evergreen albums by Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Red Garland, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Stanley Turrentine, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill and Wayne Shorter, among many others. Moreover, the sound of these records has served as the sonic ideal for jazz — and much other music — up to the present day.

Before Van Gelder opened his purpose-built Englewood Cliffs studio in 1959, he fashioned a studio in the living room of his parents’ house in nearby Hackensack, where he first started recording in the late ’40s — taping Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith and the Modern Jazz Quartet there with unprecedented depth and dimension. The engineer also captured atmospheric concert recordings in Manhattan clubs for the likes of Rollins and Blakey. But it was with his Englewood Cliffs studio that Van Gelder created the ultimate environment for recording jazz. The critic Ira Gitler sensed a special aura “in the high-domed, wooden-beamed spare modernity of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio… [It’s] a temple of music in which the sound and the spirit can seemingly soar unimpeded.”

A stickler allergic to giving away trade secrets, the otherwise mild-mannered Van Gelder — who originally trained as an optometrist — rarely gave interviews. But what commentary we have reveals his enlightened feel for acoustics, taste for vintage German microphones and penchant for getting a “hotter,” higher-decibel signal on tape than was usually done. Most of all, he had a keen concern that a jazz player recognized his or her sound in the playback.

Van Gelder passed away in 2016 at age 91, but he never retired, even recording a cutting-edge album by trumpeter Christian Scott, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, in 2009 — marking a half-century in his Englewood Cliffs studio.

Current Blue Note president (and Rolling Stones producer) Don Was — who recalls the day he was transfixed as a teenager in 1966 by the Van Gelder recording of Joe Henderson’s “Mode for Joe” — told me: “I love the way that the sound Rudy sculpted for Blue Note is a perfect complement to Francis Wolff’s famous photographs from the sessions, enhancing our experience of incredible music. Rudy Van Gelder was a brilliant audio architect, and the aural spaces he built remain unrivaled.”

(Originally published in the October 2018 issue of In Tune magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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