The continuing LJC mission to track down the affordable good stuff.
What Rudy Did
Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse in the ’50s and ’60s: Rudy Van Gelder made clean, crisp, and meticulously well-balanced recordings from his home studio in Hackensack and later in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Legacy ’60s recordings by Van Gelder continued to appear well into the ’70s through United Artists “reissues” produced by Michael Cuscuna and Charles Laurie: recorded by RVG (but not mastered by RVG). By the ’90s Van Gelder was in demand again to effect transfers to CD of many of the great sessions he had originally recorded – the Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) Series for Blue Note CD, and more recently, Concord’s Rudy Van Gelder Remasters selections from the original Prestige catalogue. In between the two is a missing decade or two.
After Blue Note: What Rudy Did Next
What did Van Gelder do in the decades between the golden years of vinyl and the transition to CD? Is there a goldmine of RVG-mastered recordings on vinyl, hidden from view among the generally indifferent productions of the ’80s? Some of you may know, but it seems largely undocumented in online journalism about jazz on vinyl (a very limited field, admittedly) Van Gelder’s Wiki makes fleeting reference to CTI, and some bizarre Japanese animated TV show, then moves on to his 24-bit transfers to CD.
Van Gelder on Wiki
As a digression, it’s a poorly informed and pretty biased Wiki, which reads like professional jealousy from some embittered sound engineer. It badly needs to be rewritten (if anyone can rewrite it badly, its LJC). It needs rewriting by someone who actually listens to a large variety of recorded jazz on vinyl, enough to offer an informed opinion. After faint praise of Rudy, there follows a catalogue of criticism (Mingus refused to be recorded by him (Mingus fell out with just about everyone. His Atlantic recordings could have been much better ), “some critics” express “distaste for the thin and recessed sound of the instruments” (Eh!? “Thin” “recessed”??) especially piano (Is that what Horace Silver and Andrew Hill said?) Alfred Lion supposedly criticised… overuse of reverb (so why did he use him all the time?). Duh.
I’ve seen similar negativity from some “customer reviews” of RVG on Amazon, perhaps received wisdom. That’s the trouble with the internet, things get repeated and then taken as authoritative, because they have been read on the internet. The only authority in such matters is your own ears. Richard Cook, quoted regarding piano, has encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz, but cites everything on CD, and I have never come across one word from him regarding vinyl/audio matters, to him it simply doesn’t exist. As a seasoned listener, Van Gelder recordings shine out like a light in the darkness, not the only good engineer by any means, but one of only a handful of recording engineers of this quality, along with Roy DuNann, Fred Plaut, Tom Dowd, Val Valentin, and others less known.
The Van Gelder Discography
The trail starts with Van Gelder’s discography, which identifies an enduring relationship in the ’70s with Creed Taylor: Verve and CTI/Kudu, unpromising from my point of view, either artists of lesser interest or previously favourite artists in their electric funk and fusion “decline”. (Cue howls of protest!)
Then, through the later ’70s and early ’80s, Van Gelder credits pop up on titles which are more my metier, on Muse, Arista/Savoy Jazz, Uptown and Cuscuna’s own reissue vehicle Mosaic, and a ragbag of more obscure labels including BlackHawk Records, and Criss Cross Jazz. (Anyone know more on these? )
Van Gelder, engineer of impeccable taste and feeling for jazz, remained active in the years before the dark age of The Evil (but admittedly convenient) Silver Disc ™, recording and mastering jazz on vinyl . There is a hoard of good stuff, though not easy to identify as record sellers are not always aware of the significance of what is written in the run-out.
The New Van Gelder Stamp
Recently having regard to some ’80s vinyl pressings – Mosaic, Savoy and Uptown – I stumbled on a curious form of the Van Gelder stamp. Not the familiar ’60s Blue Note stamp RVG or VAN GELDER, but supplemented by the additional prefix: “MASTER BY- VAN GELDER”. Rudy had made himself a new stamp.
I first noticed this stamp on some ’80s titles recorded at Englewood Cliffs by Van Gelder for Bob Sunenblick’s Uptown Records (superb quality audio!). I also recalled seeing a Van Gelder stamp on a few of my later ’80s OOP Mosaic box sets, not the usual EMI/Ron McMaster engineering but the man himself. A quick check confirmed the self-same MASTER BY- VAN GELDER stamp. Then a Savoy/Arista reissue of late 50’s recordings of Sahib Shihab Sextets came to hand, produced in 1980, which to my growing surprise had to the exact same MASTER BY- VAN GELDER stamp. Connect the dots, there is a pattern!
Ringing the Changes
Until now, I was not much aware of what RVG got up to after Blue Note. Under Liberty ownership, there were still many Van Gelder recordings but Blue Note’s artistic focus drifted towards LA as its corporate management and artistic centre, a trend maintained by United Artists, deploying their own house engineers in mastering new releases and reissues from their Blue Note back-catalogue. Following Coltrane’s final departure, and Bob Thiele’s move, Impulse artists and executives had their own preferred studios, side-lining Englewood Cliffs and taking Van Gelder out of the recording and mastering role. Even the line of legitimacy was erased from Prestige recordings, re-mastered in the ’70s by new owner Fantasy (though one or two slipped through the net with a Van Gelder stamp in the early days).
I think this accounts in no small measure for the general deterioration of sound quality (with a few exceptions) throughout the ’70s and ’80s, from the previous high benchmark set by Van Gelder . Finally, the (disastrous) new technology of Direct Metal Mastering and the all- pervasive rise of digital production effectively finished off the vinyl LP off as a medium for distribution of recorded music.
It took a further twenty years to discover that digital was not quite the march of progress it was thought to be, and the rebirth of vinyl as an audiophile medium, in some cases boasting a return to all-analog production technology, and source recorded material from “the original (Van Gelder) tapes”. Not to reopen the debate about modern audiophile products, but what happened in the final years of vinyl, before CD, is of interest.
’80s Van Gelder vs ’60s Van Gelder
The interesting question is how did the 20 to 30 years of experience following the ’60s influence the character of Van Gelder’s production? Did further advances in microphone and recording technology, all the engineer’s new toys at Englewood Cliffs, enable even better sound production than in the ’60s?
To know how ’60s and ’80s Van Gelder masters compare, an unusual opportunity arises, in the form of one Bob Sunenblick project for his Uptown Records label, a recording session in 1983 dedicated to the compositions of Kenny Dorham.
RVG mastering and recording in the ’80s relied on the artists of the day. The original artists from the golden age had in many cases departed (what doctors refer to technically as “dead”), moved to Europe, or embarked on their second career phase as music educators. However a team of greats from the golden era was recruited to perform at Englewood Cliffs for Uptown Records, including artists of the calibre of Ron Carter, Cedar Walton and Jimmy Heath, with Van Gelder in the recording and mastering chair.
Each of the tunes were selected as the best of Kenny Dorham’s catalogue, which as the liner notes observe, “exist only on albums unfortunately out of print” (since the ’60s)
Hehehe, not “out of print” here at LJC. All the Uptown album selections are tracks which I have as original editions, except for one. I don’t have Whistle Stop as an original, only Japanese, velly solly, mastered by Toshiba engineers, but that is an interesting comparison in itself. Three Blue Note stereo originals, one vintage Japanese Blue Note stereo, and the original US Stereo on Riverside, all the ’83 recordings on this album can be matched with their original ’60s comparator.
So here’s the idea: each track recorded by Van Gelder at Englewood Cliffs in 1983 compared with the original Van Gelder recording of the same Dorham composition as recorded (and mastered in most cases) by Van Gelder in the early ’60s.
You get the compare and contrast the quality of Van Gelder recording ’60s and ’80s, including changes in Van Gelder’s approach to stereo. You can also compare the master musicians with their surviving counterparts , Ron Carter’s take on the same title as Paul Chambers, Henderson vs Heath, Flanagan vs Walton – how cool is that? And it’s a terrific excuse to play some tracks from some of Blue Note’s finest ever albums. Page One? Trompetta Toccata? The Henderson albums which house a couple of the selected Dorham compositions were a rediscovery, should be played more often chez moi.
Oh, I forgot to mention. The Sunenblick/ Don Sickler album is a real treat in itself. I hadn’t heard of Sickler before, but no matter, everyone else is known.
It’s as if an audiophile record label, rather than remastering some ’60s album from original tapes, instead, they hire Englewood Cliffs, pack the studio with living greats, book Van Gelder to record it all afresh, and then RVG master it for vinyl. It’s an audacious concept, and it works. They got away with it thirty years ago. I guess not so easy today, however Van Gelder still resides in Englewood Cliffs, and last year saw his 90th birthday… it’s an idea…
Comparison 1: The Fox (Dorham)
The original track The Fox (1964) as featured on Blue Note BLP 4181 Kenny Dorham’s Trompetta Tocatta
Selection: The Fox (1964)
Kenny Dorham (trumpet) Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone) Tommy Flanagan (piano) Richard Davis (bass) Albert Heath (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September 14, 1964
Now twenty years later, the 1983 Van Gelder recording at Englewood Cliffs, with a different roster of vintage artists
Selection: The Fox (1983)
Don Sickler (trumpet) Jimmy Heath (tenor) Cedar Walton (piano) Ron Carter (bass) Billy Higgins (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ,November 12, 1983
Both beauties in their own right, Henderson’s angry rasping tone can cut through walls but Heath is no slouch, Flanagan outshines Cedar Walton (hey, who can’t record piano?) but Ron Carter vs Richard Davis, what a difficult choice: Carter walking is majestic, tiptoe-ing the upper register.
To my ear, the original Blue Note has a rougher urgency and fire in its belly, it drives, the Uptown session is more leisurely and relaxed, swinging, a more perfect sound-stage. Flip back and forth for an insight into visceral versus sophisticated, you call the shots. As for the Wiki snipes – too much reverb? thin piano?
Have I got Van Gelder wrong? If you like CTI – what is RVGs distinctive input ? Any observations, always of interest.
More to follow in forthcoming posts, including the “horror” that is early Riverside stereo