Thursday, February 2, 2012

February 2: Rudy Van Gelder

When one looks all across the history of recorded music, there are countless performers that are constantly named as being responsible for shaping the world of music, as well as altering culture in general.  While one cannot deny that the sounds of such artists had impact that is deserving of the utmost reverence, the reality stands that each of these performers had a team around them that ensured that their sound was properly captured an mixed.  The production teams that worked on so many seminal recordings have been largely forgotten by the passage of time, and yet there is one name that is nothing short of synonymous with the entire world of jazz music.  Though he is easily on par in terms of achievement, and it is nothing short of stunning to read a list of the albums which he oversaw, there is no question that Rudy Van Gelder still fails to receive all of the accolades he so clearly deserves.  Truth be told, one can make the argument that he was the most important element in the entire history of jazz music, as he served as the primary recording engineer for Blue Note Records throughout a majority of the 1950's and 1960's.  Lending a consistent sense of professionalism, an almost legendary work ethic, and an unending quest to create the best possible recording environment, there has simply never been another producer even remotely as vital to the progression of music as a whole than Rudy Van Gelder.

Unlike many early producers an engineers who somewhat "fell" into the role, Van Gelder's passion for the recording process began at a very early age, as he showed a passion for electronics and the intricacies of the microphone when he was in his teens.  This led to Van Gelder creating impromptu "recording sessions" in a modified room of his parents basement, and it was during these recordings where Van Gelder began his search for "the perfect sound."  As legend has it, Rudy Van Gelder spent much of his money on the equipment necessary to improve every aspect of this home recording studio, and by the end of the 1940's, he was recording "legitimate" musicians in this space.  Even in these earl recordings, there was a tone and quality that separated it from most of the work of the larger record labels, and this led to a meeting between Van Gelder and Blue Note Records producer Alfred Lion in the early 1950's.  Almost immediately following this event, the record label began using Van Gelder on a very regular basis, and he quickly became one of the most in demand producers on the planet.  It was his constant striving to capture the very essence of the musician with whom he was working that set his sound so far apart from that of his peers, and he became well known for his exceptionally humble, yet relentless quest to bring the best out of every musician with whom he worked.

When one steps back and inspects the massive list of albums for which Van Gelder served as producer, it is nothing short of mind blowing to think that one person could have had as much high quality work as one finds in his catalog.  Nearly every jazz luminary of a fifteen year span had some connection with Van Gelder, as the likes of Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cannonball Adderley all own much of the sound of their finest recordings to the work of this one man.  However, it was his work with outright legends like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk where one can not only understand just how highly revered a figure he was in his own time, but the fact that the sound he was able to bring out of every artist was truly something unique.  It is the way that you can hear slight variations in the techniques of Van Gelder, as he moves certain instruments to specific parts of the mix, where one can truly appreciate the "art" of producing and engineering, and one can easily make the case that without his vision and talents, jazz music would never have reached the heights that it did throughout the 1950's and 1960's.  Yet the fact remains that "the Van Gelder sound" is very much a secret of sorts, as he rarely shared the intricacies of his techniques; but the fact remains that due to the overall feel and absolutely flawless sound he was able to capture, there is not another producer in history that can even remotely rival the importance and talents of the great Rudy Van Gelder.

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