This week’s Cosmic Jazz was all about one man – Rudy van Gelder, whose death was announced late last month. Van Gelder was, without doubt, one of the most important figures in the history of jazz music – but he wasn’t a musician. As an engineer, he helped to define the sound of recorded jazz from his two iconic recording studios – first in Hackensack at his parents’s home and then at his own custom built studio (and home) at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Van Gelder always said that he was not a record producer but a recording engineer. He had the final say in what Englewood Cliffs records sounded like, and he was, in the view of countless producers, musicians and listeners, better at that than anyone. Van Gelder engineered albums for four key labels – Prestige, Blue Note, Impulse and CTI – and was responsible for so many jazz classics, including John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Horace Silver’s Song For My Father.
In 1988, van Gelder told the New York Times that he believed he had been associated with more records, technically, than anybody else in the history of the record business – and any look at the list of records engineered at Englewood Cliffs endorses this. So, here at CJ, we’ve tried to condense some of the Englewood Cliffs experience into an hour of classic jazz recordings. We began with the title track from Horizon, one of the best of McCoy Tyner’s many recordings for Milestone. This record is a stonecold classic – find it and buy it if you can. The inspired choice of John Blake on violin and saxophonist George Adams complement Tyner perfectly as he weaves through a series of superb compositions, of which Horizon is the most exceptional. Up next was a more familiar recording – Oliver Nelson’s Impulse! label classic Stolen Moments from his 1961 album The Blues and the Abstract Truth. This standard has now been recorded by dozens of artists including a celebrated vocal version by Mark Murphy that we have featured previously on CJ.
John Coltrane was much recorded at Englewood Cliffs, from the early days with Prestige to his long tenure at Impulse! Records. We chose a classic from 1962 – the studio recording of Impressions. This track is pure Coltrane – although it uses the same chord sequence as Miles Davis’s So What, it couldn’t be more different. Impressions is modal piece featuring what had become known by the time of this recording as Coltrane’s sheets of sound. Listen to the free-flowing drumming of Elvin Jones and how he is tuned to the pulse and energy of Coltrane’s saxophone tones. For us at CJ, this is one of those timeless Coltrane recordings that belong with Blue Train, Ole and A Love Supreme. Seek out the deluxe version of the Impulse! album just called Coltrane and you’ll find the recording we featured.
There are some great records that feature recipes – one of my favourites is Don Cherry’s Rappin’ Recipe on his little known album Home Boy, Sister Out. Check out the track Alphabet City here. We wedged in the comic double act of trumpeter Clark Terry and Chico O’Farrill with their 1966 recipe Spanish Rice before the arrival of Gabor Szabo’s Gypsy Queen, a track recorded by Santana on their excellent Abraxas album. But it’s a tune that has a jazz pedigree as well – I’ve always enjoyed the version by guitarist Larry Coryell.
Rudy van Gelder was reluctant to reveal too many specifics about his recording techniques. But he was clear about his goal: to get electronics to accurately capture the human spirit, and to make the records he engineered sound as warm and as realistic as possible. The
placing of microphones was crucial in this process and the result was that many of his recordings (particularly those from the late 1950s and early 1960s have a presence that often places the musicians in the room with the listener. That’s true of many of the recordings we featured in this week’s show and even on an MP3 file you can hear this. Listen closely to Sam Rivers’ tenor saxophone on Beatrice for a taste of this. Van Gelder wanted what he called a sense of space in the overall sound picture. He used specific microphones located in places that allowed the musicians to sound as though they were playing from different locations in the room, which in reality they were. This created a feeling of dimension and depth that few other recordings have. Whether it’s Sonny Rollins’s sax on Alfie’s Theme or Tommy Flanagan’s claves on Samba Para Bean you can hear it all so clearly.
As a former optometrist, van Gelder was particularly fussy about the small details of recording. He said I was the guy doing everything — setting up the chairs, running the floor cables, setting the microphones, working the console. I didn’t want to handle all of my fine, expensive equipment with dirty hands. It shows. Even more, van Gelder was involved in every aspect of making his records, from preparation to mastering (the final stage in the process) in which the music on tape was transferred to disc for record-plant pressing. I always wanted to be in control of the entire recording chain, he said. Why not? It had my name on it. This – of course – was true: if you look at the run off groove on any Rudy van Gelder vinyl recording you will see his initials.
- McCoy Tyner – Horizon from Horizon
- Oliver Nelson – Stolen Moments from Stolen Moments
- John Coltrane – Impressions from Coltrane (Deluxe Edition)
- Clark Terry and Chico O’Farrill – Spanish Rice from Spanish Rice
- Gabor Szabo – Gypsy Queen from Spellbinder
- Jackie McLean – Francisco from Capuchin Swing
- Horace Silver – Home Cookin’ from The Stylings of Silver
- Sonny Rollins – Alfie’s Theme from Alfie
- Sam Rivers – Beatrice from Fuchsia Swing Song
- Coleman Hawkins – Samba Para Bean from Desafinado
Neil is listening to:
- Donald Fagen – Trans-Island Skyways
- Arthur Blythe – Contemplation
- Massive Attack – Hymn of the Big Wheel
- Jorge Ben – O Telefone
- Gilles Peterson – Nana
Derek is listening to…