Rudy Van Gelder died August 25th, 2016. Rudy was as responsible for the CTI/KUDU sound, the sound of Creed Taylor’s “new jazz”, as anyone. Rudy didn’t play the instruments, he didn’t decide of the tracks, he didn’t do the arrangements, and the style of play, and overall sound wasn’t Rudy. He did though make sure that he captured every moment of it as accurately as he could.

Rudy recorded thousands of music sessions, the majority of them in analog format. That said, he was an engineers, sound engineer. Never one to settle for what he knew, and tools he’d always used, Rudy was forever tinkering, looking for ways to find the best sound; to record the musicians the way they played.

Later in his career, notably after having been given the change to work in both early digital recording by Creed Taylor, working on Sony 24-track equipment for the CTI Laserdisc series in the late 1980’s, including the Rhythmstick album and CD, also used for the laserdisc, which uniquely contains one of the few films of recording session at Van Gelder’s Englewoods Cliff studio.

Rudy wasn’t afraid to step forward and declare digital better than analog, no matter what the vinylheads might argue.

The biggest distorter is the LP itself. I’ve made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes going simultaneously, and I’m glad to see the LP go. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engineer. That’s why some digital recordings sound terrible, and I’m not denying that they do, but don’t blame the medium.

Van Gelder, Rudy; Rozzi, James (1995). “Rudy Van Gelder Interview (Edited Version)”.

Rudy was also not a fan of re-issues containing alternate takes. While he understood implicitly that you get get more tracks on digital releases, he didn’t think more was always better. Takes that were rejected the first time around, when released on vinyl, did the musicians a disservice, when added onto the end of a re-issue, even when care was taken to remaster the tracks.

Rudy also worked on the Van Gelder Editions, a large catalog of remastered, re-engineered recordings for Blue Note issued on CD, all from recordings made over several decades. It involved converting and remastering the analog masters into 24-bit digital recordings, all-in-all I think I found 171 CD’s in the series. Rudy also worked on a similar series of re-masters featuring some of the Prestige albums he recorded for its then owners, Concord Records.

One of the best interviews I’ve heard with Rudy, is an audio recording by Chris Hovan for WCPN Radio in Cleveland. It’s well worth listening to the whole show, which can be found on youtube(see link below). In the interview, Rudy says of Creed Taylor:

Creed Taylor is an absolute genius, he is totally unique. He is beyond that type of record producer, he has taken jazz music and bought it beyond the jazz audience. He manufactures records in a way that reaches people. He had made records for various labels, and one springs to mind for example, not necessarily a jazz record, Walter Wanderley, the organ player, a record called “Rain Forest” (1966), “Summer Samba”, for Verve.

What I mean by reaching people, when that record went out of print, I got letters for literally years after asking if I had the tape and I could make a copy. People couldn’t buy it, they were going to great lengths for it, asking if any new records were being made.

Creed has a knack of taking these people, like Chet Baker, people like Paul Desmond, people like Wes Montgomery, and of course George Benson and I could go on and on, what about Grover Washington, even Bob James for example, he bought to new levels. Even Quincy Jones, I mean Quincy was working as a record producer for Mercury Records, when Creed did Quincy, it was a new look at Quincy, he came to a new level through Creed, he is a genius, and he can still do it.

Rudy Van Gelder talking to Chris Hovan in 1989, for WCPN Cleveland.

If you don’t know the complete Van Gelder story, he discusses it this interview by producer Michael Cuscuna, during which Rudy reminisces about the early days of Blue Note, the legends with whom he has worked, and his legacy.

From the Blue Note Perfect Takes DVD and CD release. Produced by Michael Cuscuna (see below for link)

If you are reader rather than a watcher, Marc Myers Jazzwax column has an amazing five part interview with Rudy, including pictures of equipment, recollections of recordings and so much more(see link below).

Longevity

Rudy worked with Creed almost from the start, certainly before I was born and a decade or more before he would move into the custom built Englewood Cliffs location, where he would live out his time. Among his earliest recordings with Creed were:

  • Joe Roland Quintet – Recorded March 25th, 1955 in New York for Bethlehem Records.
  • Red Allen, Cozy Cole All Stars -Jazz At The Metronome Cafe (May 1955) Bethlehem Records.
  • Urbie Green – Blues and Other Shades of Green (1955) ABC-Paramount
  • Billy Taylor Trio – Evergreens (1956) ABC-Paramount

He also worked with Creed on some of the last original works published by CTI. As well as the CTI 6-pack of laserdiscs, Rudy was also engineer for:

  • Jim Hall – Youkali, 1992
  • Charles Fambrough – The Charmer, 1992
  • Larry Coryell – Fallen Angel, 1993

The two worked hand-in-glove together for 50-years, once you include the remastering and re-releases. An amazing feet in a somewhat cut throat industry.

Detractors

Rudy certainly had his detractors. He was accused of being overrated; of altering the sound both as it was recorded, and after recording using compression, equalization and reverberation. Then of course there were those overdubbing sessions, where entire musicians were sometimes ‘cut’ from recordings, but those were always producer decisions.

In the early days, those cuts could often be literal, involving the master tape and a razor blade(See Marc Myers Jazzwax interview, link below).

Awards

Rudy is right up there with the best recording engineers of all time.

Tribute

Thelonious Monk wrote and recorded this track, Hackensack in his first recording session for Columbia records between 31 October and 6 November 1962. It was issued on Monks second album for Columbia, “Criss Cross” in 1963.

More Information

Blue Note Perfect Takes – DVD, CD Featuring Rudy’s work [discogs master]
Chris Hovan Interview with Rudy, 1989 [youtube]
Grammy Trustee Award [via grammy.com]
Rhthymstick – The CTI All Stars [discogs release]
American/European CD’s – Detailed look [Dougpayne.com]
Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack: Defining the Jazz Sound in the 1950’s by Dan Skea [via jazzstudiesonline.org(.pdf)]
The Rudy Van Gelder Interview – Marc Myers [Jazzwax.com]
Downbeat Magazine Obituary [downbeat.com]

Leave a Reply