Poll: Your Top Ten Live Modern Jazz Records


I have noted all your suggestions, of necessity cut the nominations down to around thirty and offer you the opportunity to vote for your “Top Ten”. Sorry not every suggestion has been included, but I have given you an “other” option.

Taking a leaf from the politicians book, LJC claims he knew nothing about this poll before he saw it online, takes full responsibility, but has no intention of resigning any time soon (unless rioters take to the streets)

You have ten votes – that’s one for each finger, those of you who have difficulty with short term memory. You need to cast all your ten votes during one session, before pushing the “Vote!” button. Choose wisely as you can’t change your mind.

That’s it, voting is now over for you, now a bonus item.

Here is an interesting article with RVG interviewed for a sound engineers magazine Mix back in 2005

May 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Jeff Forlenza

Originally published in Mix magazine 2005, reposted here in its entirety at LJC 2013


“Quality is what drives the work I do,” Rudy Van Gelder says. “From the beginning, that’s all I would think about, day and night: How could I make the recordings that I made sound better?” After 50 years of recording jazz giants and building his own equipment, Van Gelder is still determined in his quest for “the stunning reproduction of music.” These days, he is busy remastering the next round of Blue Note’s Rudy Van Gelder Series re-issues, which will include 24-bit digital remasters of classic albums by Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Smith and others.

Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion and Van Gelder first met when musician Gil Melle introduced them in 1953. Lion was impressed with the sonic clarity of Van Gelder’s recordings, and he made sure that Van Gelder recorded most Blue Note sessions from 1953 to 1967. The signature “Blue Note Sound” is really a culmination of Lion’s devotion to hard bop jazz, Van Gelder’s meticulous pursuit of accurately capturing that improvisatory music and the remarkable playing of the musicians on those sessions from Van Gelder’s first studio in Hackensack, N.J. These days, Van Gelder operates from a state-of-the-art digital facility in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where he is working with re-issue producer Michael Cuscuna on the RVG Series.

“It’s been great,” Van Gelder says of the project. “I am in control of the process, but Michael has to approve each album. The project started in 1998, initiated by Toshiba-EMI in Japan, and I’m currently working on a 2005 U.S. release. Since the advent of the CD, other people had been making the transfers and masters of the sessions that I recorded for Blue Note, but there was something lacking. It’s not a question of high or low quality; it’s just my approach to the music. Since I was there and I still have a strong recollection of what the musicians and producers were trying to do, I feel I can carry that through to the mastering process. I would like to emphasize it’s not a question of good or bad, it’s just that I’m the messenger.”

Van Gelder started recording musicians in his parents’ living room in Hackensack as a hobby. Overwhelming demand from musicians and producers forced him to quit his day job as an optometrist and record music full time. Before he started making his own records, Van Gelder simply wanted to re-create the audio experience of live music. His love for jazz and hearing it played back accurately led him to audiophile equipment stores.

“When I first started, I was interested in improving the quality of the playback equipment I had,” Van Gelder explains. “I never was really happy with what I heard. I always assumed the records made by the big companies sounded better than what I could reproduce. So that’s how I got interested in the process. I acquired everything I could to play back audio: speakers, turntables, amplifiers.

“When I started making records, there was no quality recording equipment available to me,” he continues. “I had to build my own mixer. The only people who had quality equipment were the big companies. They were building their own electronics. Larry Scully of Bridgeport, Connecticut, spent his life trying to improve the quality of his recording lathe. There was a time when all the big labels used his machine. The whole industry was based on his effort to design and build a high-quality recording lathe. It was my dream to own a Scully lathe.”

These days, Van Gelder is also an enthusiastic supporter of digital audio and an avid learner of new gear and software. “I believe today’s equipment is fantastic,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to face a session without the editing capabilities of digital. There are still maintenance and reliability issues. Tech support helps. From my viewpoint, the essential difference between analog and digital is that analog does not like to be copied,” Van Gelder continues. “After the original is recorded, edited and mixed, then what? You need a digital delivery medium. In that sense, the final product can be much higher quality than in the ’70s.”

Overall, Van Gelder is excited about the level of quality of current audio gear, but he doesn’t believe the marketing hype about the value of today’s variety of delivery options. “Quality is vastly improved in the current professional production phase,” Van Gelder says. “Quality in the home playback phase is questionable: home theater with dinky so-called satellite speakers and subwoofers, ads saying you can get surround sound in your laptop computer, MP3s, lossy compression, music through your cell phone, streaming music on the Internet — come on.”

Mix magazine

So there you have it, in RVG’s own words – the “problem” with sound quality is in the home playback system, not the recording. I know he is referring to mickey mouse on the move audio, but there is a wider truth here, its just one of scale. He puts all the sound in to the recording and mastering. The question is, how much of it can your audio equipment get out?


Postscript: it is m personal opinion is that both Van Gelder and Cuscuna have fallen for the “progress” myth –  that “modern scientific digital” is progress on the old-fashioned technology of analog fifty years ago. It is so “obvious” that it must be an improvement  that the assumption does need to be questioned, or tested empirically.

No doubt that modern digital is a more convenient system of delivery, and allows more control by the engineer (no splicing tape, lots of adjustments, mixing etc), and has a business logic, so it is desirable for lots of reasons, but that does not also mean it sounds  “better” .

Possibly ultra high resolution digital may match analog, in the same way that, somewhere near 12 megapixels, the digital photograph overtakes the resolution of silver on film. It does not occur on with current standard of CD, comparing streamed flac files sourced from CD with analog from vinyl. Not to say it can never, just does not now.

When my experience changes, my views will change with it. For some people, life works the other way around.

20 thoughts on “Poll: Your Top Ten Live Modern Jazz Records

  1. Awesome list, and the one that leaves practically nothing to add or subtract. Practically all my favorites are in the top-10, as voted by the general LJC public (kudos to all for exquisitely fine taste) . However, it is a real PAIN seeing my personal favorite (Wes Montgomery (Smokin’ at the Half-Note) stuck just outside top-10 (at #11) and Miles Davis’ greatest live recording (Live at the Plugged Nickel) hopelessly stranded at #13. Oh, well.

    My only addition would be Coltrane’s ‘Live in Japan’ (ABC/Impulse, 1973) for its fiery, almost screaming passion (perhaps his most brutal performance on record – definitely not for the faint of heart), and Kenny Burrell’s ‘A Night at the Vanguard’ (Argo, 1959) for his incredible technical skill and, more importantly, the sheer beauty of his sound..

    If one factors in Jazz vocals albums, concert performances by Ella Fitzgerald (multiple recordings), Dinah Washington, Tony Bennett and Anita O’Day would absolutely have to be included.

    I understand that, technically, Duke Ellington does not count as “Modern Jazz”, but any list that omits ‘Ellington at Newport” (1956 performance, not 1958), pretty much self-disqualifies. This, ladies and gentleman, may well be the single greatest live Jazz recording ever, modern or otherwise, swing, bop or avant. After all, after listening to Paul Gonsalves’ 5-minute tenor solo on ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ ‘it is just about impossible – and entirely unnecessary – to draw the line.

    • Idea for a future poll: the greatest saxophone solos ever. Gosh, where to begin? The legendary Gonsalves 27 chorus solo in Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, Newport 1956. That one has me playing air-saxophone.-
      Along with Charlie Parker’s famous alto break. Probably countless more.

      • Dear LJC, I don’t want to rush things – but what about the greatest instrumental solos ever? I would not necessarily – though preferably – stick to the Blue Note/Contemporary/Prestige etc. jazz styles. There were some solo performances during the “modern jazz“ era by musicians who were not “modern“ by definition but who, in their timeless perfection, could easily outdo some of their younger contemporaries. Stanley Crouch, in “The All-American Skin Game“, invites us to “compare Davis’s much-lauded improvisation on “Sid’s Ahead“ from Milestones of 1958 with Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues“ of 1957: you will hear a vast difference in subtlety, nuance, melodic order, and swing. As fine a player as he had become, Davis could not even approximate Armstrong’s authority.“

        (I’m telling you, folks: If you never heard Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues“ of 1957, you ain’t heard nothing yet!)

        And now let me put Charlie Parker‘s “Just Friends“ on the turntable.

        • Hmmm. An interesting idea….but how do we compare and categorize thousands of solos? Tenor sax solos alone probably number in the thousands. We need a supercomputer for this contest…

          • You’re right, Bob. Anyway, polls of this kind will always be “fun“ rather than serios research, and it would make little difference to me if I had to name ten saxophone solos or ten solos in general. It would be equally difficult, or easy – I haven’t tried yet.

            And you’re absolutely right about Ellington. I daresay he even was a “modern jazz“ musician in some funny way. Could Teddy Wilson have created “Money Jungle“? Art Tatum? Erroll Garner? Ellington did.

  2. Everybody digs Bill Evans – not quite. The most influential pianist probably of the last century but to me just a tad boring and overly impressionistic. His harmonic ideas are sometimes incredible but what about the melodic ones? Well they aren’t really there in my book.
    How about that for iconoclasm?

    • I don’t know about other people but for me its the Bill Evans Trio – the interaction between Evans, LaFaro and Motian that is the main point of interest with his VV recordings, and not especially Evans himself. His later collaboraters didn’t come up to the same standard in my view.

      • Until just very recently I would have shared Andy’s view — all just a touch too polite. BUt what changed my mind was finally listening to the Vanguard session in its entirety (at least, its entirety on vinyl), and hearing the utterly compelling (and convincing) reconstruction of MILESTONES for a piano trio. Absolutely masterful. And LJC hits the nail on the head — it’s about the group interaction and group improvisation rather than being about Evans the pianist, per se.

    • Andy, your iconoclasm leaves me somewhat slightly underwhelmed. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that, yes, that was my INITIAL reaction to Evans, too. It took me “only” about 15 years to penetrate the impenetrable “impressionism” of Bill Evans (hey — what’s wrong with Impressionism — you don’t like Debussy or Ravel?)

      Yes, Evans can be a little short on adrenaline, but what he lacks in the hormone and bombast department, he more than overcompensates on subtlety, refinement and sheer lyricism. I mean, do you listen to Miles Davis for anything other than finesse? And what about Grant Green? Clifford Brown?

      If you wish to explore some of his melodic ideas, may I recommend some of his middle-period recordings, such as his much-maligned electric piano works (notably Left and Right, MGM, 1970).

      To me, personally, the heart and soul of Evans is his interplay with others (his solo works leave me stone cold). The two Village Vanguard volumes are masterpieces in every sense of the word, courtesy, no doubt, of Scott LaFaro (CAUTION: STEREO VERSION A MUST), and Evans’ session work with others (notably George Russell and Miles Davis) is nothing short of sonic heaven. I boldly state that without his ivories, Kind of Blue would never have reached it’s classic plateau. On “Kind of Blue”, Evans is in every manner imaginable co-equal to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Yes, Bill Evans more than deserves to be on this list — and many others.

      • I agree with all the points about the interplay with La Faro and particularly about Kind of Blue – Wynton Kelly would never have contributed in the same way. I have listened to Waltz for Debby inside out – over and over again. I just don’t find the same overall emotional depth in his music that I find in say Monk, Sonny Clark or McCoy Tyner.

  3. My “other” is James Moody – Cookin’ The Blues, Argo LP 756 (1961). Recorded live at the Jazz Workshop in SF. Moody on tenor, alto and flute, Howard McGhee on trumpet, Bernard McKinney on trombone, Musa Kalleem on baritone sax, Sonny Donaldson on piano, Steve Davis on bass, Arnold Denlow on drums, and Eddie Jefferson on vocals for two special numbers, “Disappointed” and “Sister Sadie.” Sparkling, driving set – the band is razor sharp, Moody solos beautifully, and Eddie Jefferson absolutely crushes his two songs. The recording quality is also excellent.

    Another strong contender is the Clifford Brown Jam Session, Emarcy LP MG36002 (1954). The Brown/Roach group, plus Clark Terry, Herb Geller, Dinah Washington and others. My tolerance for jam sessions varies, but this is the tip-top of the heap. Brown/Roach was in full power at the time, the other soloists are inspired, the audience is appreciative, and Dinah is amazing (MG36000, Dinah Jams, is from the same session and is also terrific).

  4. My “other” was Thelonious Monk Quartet with Johnny Griffin – Thelonious in Action (Live at the Five Spot). Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby surely stands aside Sunday at the VV.

  5. “You need a digital delivery medium.” Thus spake Rudy Van Gelder.
    My own comments on the “Vinyl vs. CD” issue within this blog have been misunderstood in a number of ways, so let me again put my point in a nutshell:
    No man alive will be able to tell whether he is listening to his favourite vinyl record or to a digital rip of that same record. In other words, the fact that something is digital will not make it sound any different. I might prefer the sound of my old vinyl to the sound of a commercial CD reissue for a number of reasons – but not because the CD reissue is “digital“.

  6. just cast my vote. For “other” I put “Jimmy Giuffre in Person” on Verve. An other serious contender is “Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House”, also on Verve.

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