Last night I went to sleep listening to Cannonball Adderly’s Somethin' Else, one of my favourite records, and it reminded me that I hadn’t written about the death of Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer on that and so many other great jazz records, most notably for Blue Note, but for most of the specialist jazz labels in the glorious era of hard bop, when between the artists and jazzmen and poets and novelists New York really was the centre of the world.
When I first heard he died I had put Hank Mobley’s Soul Station on, and listened while I read obituaries, and was unable to sell one myself to British papers. There's a nice sidebar by my friend August Kleinzahler, who grew up not far from the Van Gelder ‘studio’ in New Jersey, over at the London Review of Books blog here. I noticed many of them had quotes from other audio engineers disparaging Van Gelder’s amateurish efforts; another friend, Michael Goldfarb, posted a comment along those lines from the facebook page of one of his engineers from his NPR days: as I recalled the pure sterility of the NPR sound, like voices speaking in a vacuum chamber, this made a certain sense.
There were some musicians, Charles Mingus most prominent among them, who wouldn't record at Van Gelder. Mingus felt what came out on the record was not the sound he was hearing when he made it, and this was more than just an engineer's perfection, it was a composer's sense of what the sound should be.
But Soul Station reminded me of why the Van Gelder sound worked for the listener: it gave you the feeling you were listening to improvisation as it took place, as if you were in a club environment, hearing the instruments both working with and also trying to better each other.
Last night as I listened to Somethin' Else, when Cannonball comes in for his solo on the opening cut, 'Autumn Leaves', I realised something else...you could hear quite clearly the open space of the famous cathedral ceiling in the Van Gelder house. It created the tone you might associate with a sacred setting. Not like Jan Garbarek, for example, playing in a literal cathedral, with the Hillard Ensemble or his band, and creating a sound of almost religious nordic meditation. This was like the isolation of inspiration, a moment close to the quiet ideal of an NPR studio after all, but fitting seamlessly into the context of the group energy around him. More important perhaps, it was still music the way you really would hear it in a club, coming and going, the sound not always perfect, but reaching you as it was able to reach you wherever you were sitting. I find Something Else every bit as contemplative as Garbarek, but with a dynamic difference.
Cannonball’s 1958 bop is a way of bringing energy and drive to a staid world that seemed disinclined toward inner vision or peace. Garbarek’s work of the past few decades has been more about bringing some sort of reflective peace to a world of increasing chaos. They blend together well in my mind, and in the end there is not quite as much difference in Manfred Eicher's ECM engineering, which on first thought I would have placed way over toward the NPR end of the spectrum, and the Van Gelder sound, unlikely as that seems.
I hadn’t realised that Van Gelder, after the jazz labels were subsumed into bigger companies, moved on to CTI, Creed Taylor’s ‘mellow’ jazz, which probably should be seen as the forerunner to today’s ‘smooth jazz’ and Kenny G. I remember picking up a Freddie Hubbard CTI record sometime in the 60s, not liking it, and ignoring the label. Now I’m a little curious about how Van Gelder’s techniques worked with the string overlays and lush sound of CTI. But not that curious...
Rudy Van Gelder is probably most important as much as an image of that jazz world, the unlikely optometrist recording the greatest artists of the past century in a makeshift studio in his parents’ house in New Jersey. It’s the essence of what that world was about to its fans, and to a large extent, as an almost cult world today, still is. RIP RVG.