Few recording engineers have had as large or lasting an impact on popular music as Rudy Van Gelder. The New Jersey native, who passed away on August 25th at the age of 91, not only helped to define the sound of (arguably) jazz’s most creative and influential period (from roughly 1950 to 1975), he also worked to develop modern recording approaches and techniques that are still being used today across a multitude of music genres.
Van Gelder’s most prolific work would come after 1959, when he opened his famed recording studio at 442 Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. His career, however, began years earlier when he, working as an optometrist, began recording jazz sessions at his parents’ house in Hackensack. Among many other classics, 1954’s self-titled album by Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, 1955’s Afro-Cuban by Kenny Drew, 1956’s Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins, and a legendary session that same year recorded with the Miles Davis Quintet that spawned the Steamin’, Workin’, Cookin’ and Relaxin’ with… albums — all recorded there for some of the most successful record labels in jazz, including Prestige and Blue Note.
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
After recording one last session with Ike Quebec (released in 2000 under the title From Hackensack to Englewood Cliffs), Van Gelder left his optometry practice and began work at the more accommodating Englewood Cliffs location, recording early ’60s classics with the likes of Eric Dolphy (Outward Bound, 1960), Dexter Gordon (Go!, 1962), and Jackie McLean (Destination… Out!, 1963).
Dexter Gordon – Go!
Among his most lasting work during this period were his sessions with John Coltrane, who first encountered Van Gelder while recording for Prestige in the 1950s (they also collaborated on Coltrane’s great 1957 release, Blue Train). Coming off an early peak with Atlantic records that included 1960’s Giant Steps and 1961’s My Favorite Things, the saxophonist would compile the “classic quintet” that featured McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, and record the most important records of his career with Van Gelder at Englewood Cliffs. 1961’s Africa/Brass, 1963’s Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and Impressions, 1964’s Crescent, and especially 1965’s A Love Supreme all would come to represent not only a high watermark in jazz, but perhaps the most fluid representation of the changes that were occurring within the genre itself.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
Van Gelder continued to be productive throughout the back half of the ’60s, adhering to trends by recording fine soul jazz (1966’s Wes Montgomery & Jimmy Smith’ s Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Sonny Criss’s This is Criss!) and latin jazz (1967’s Bobo Motion by Willie Bobo). His most important contributions during this period, however, likely lie in a string of highly influential collaborations with Herbie Hancock (including 1964’s Empyrean Isles, 1965’s Maiden Voyage, 1968’s Speak Like a Child and 1969’s Fat Albert Rotunda).
Herbie Hancock – Speak Like a Child
Van Gelder would continue to gravitate toward more approachable material by joining forces with Creed Taylor’s new imprint, CTI Records. Their emphasis on moody, groove-oriented jazz proved to be massively popular throughout the ’70s, with Van Gelder recording some of the best sessions of his career with Freddie Hubbard (1970’s Red Clay and Straight Life), Stanley Turrentine (1970’s Sugar and 1973’s Don’t Mess with Mister T.), Grover Washington, Jr. (1973’s Soul Box and 1975’s Mister Magic and Feels So Good), and Eumir Deodato’s hugely successful version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” featured on 1973’s Prelude.
Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay
Van Gelder would continue recording well into the 2000s, most notably on a string of records with Cedar Walton. And though he has died, his recordings, presented with a virtually unparalleled degree of clarity and warmth, will serve as a benchmark for many, many years to come. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind that albums like Steely Dan’s Aja, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and even contemporary releases, such as the work of Matthew E. White and his Spacebomb Sound, owe a great debt to Rudy Van Gelder and his contributions to recorded music. Here’s to finding the sound.
Grover Washington, Jr. – “Mister Magic”
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