Rudy Van Gelder, pioneering jazz recording engineer, dies at 91

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Although not a household name Rudy Van Gelder, who has died at the age of 91 in the U.S., is one of the key figures in jazz, helping to shape the sound of jazz over thousands of recordings, many of which are seminal moments in the development of jazz music: John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ all benefited from the audio know-how of Mr Van Gelder.

Van Gelder’s stated ambition was to “capture and reproduce the music better than other engineers at the time – “I was driven to make the music sound closer to the way it sounded in the studio. This was a constant struggle — to get electronics to accurately capture the human spirit.”

 

Graduating way back in 1943 Van Gelder proved a natural in tinkering with electronics and had soon created a rudimentary recording studio in the basement of his family home in New Jersey – before long a queue of local jazz musicians were looking to benefit from his studio expertise.
One of his friends, saxophonist Gil Melle, introduced him to Blue Note Records founder and producer Alfred Lion in 1953. Lion was impressed with Mr. Van Gelder’s ability to create a “natural sound” with the feel of a jazz club.

He soon became the main recording engineer for the independent jazz label, using innovative state-of-the-art recording techniques that helped turn the label into a major force on the modern jazz scene. Pianist Thelonious Monk composed a tribute to Mr. Van Gelder’s home studio titled “Hackensack,” which he recorded there in 1954.

 

Mr. Van Gelder not only recorded sessions for Blue Note, but also worked extensively with Prestige Records on such sessions as Miles Davis’s “Bags’ Groove” and “Walkin’ ” and Sonny Rollins’s “Tenor Madness” and “Saxophone Colossus.”

In 1964, tenor saxophonist Coltrane recorded his deeply spiritual masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for the Impulse! label at Mr. Van Gelder’s studio.

“The session was hypnotic, exciting and different,” Mr. Van Gelder recalled in his 2012 interview with Myers. “But I didn’t realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later. When Coltrane was here, I was too worried about capturing the music.

After Lion retired from running Blue Note in 1967, the label’s new owners began turning to other recording engineers more frequently. In the 1970s, Mr. Van Gelder worked as the engineer for producer Creed Taylor’s commercially successful crossover jazz label, CTI, recording such albums as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.”

Mr. Van Gelder later embraced digital technology. Starting in 1999, he began remastering his analog Blue Note recordings into digital recordings for the label’s RVG Edition series.

In 2012, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences honoured Mr. Van Gelder with its Trustees Award, recognizing his lifelong contribution to jazz recording.

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