Friday, August 26, 2016

The man who was there

John Coltrane and Rudy Van Gelder, early 1960s

Phonography is one of the motors of jazz. Without recorded sound, the fast evolution of the music would not have happened. A recording allows however many repetitions necessary to assimilate the music. Without recordings, the contact with remote sonic cultures would be much, much harder.

Besides conveniency, phonography has given jazz an aesthetic. And counter to intuition, given the hundreds of thousands of jazz recordings produced and still available, a large of that urbane, sophisticated, aesthetic is due to a single person: Rudy Van Gelder, RVG, who passed away yesterday morning, aged 91.

If we compare the sound of jazz recordings made by independent companies in the 1950s with other records made during the same years, the difference is striking. Van Gelder pioneered equipment, sometimes altering it, and helped create a job description that didn't exist when he got started, all to get the most natural sound by all "artificial" means necessary. In the way he miked his piano —aided by Dr. Billy Taylor—, or by having Miles Davis record with his stemless Harmon mute almost touching an altered Telefunken microphone, he helped the sound of jazz transcend its regular audience.

Much has been said—not all nice—about his meticulousness and attention to detail, but that was the means to an end. Michael Cuscuna, someone who knows about recovering and reissuing recordings, had this to say about the quality of his work:
"With anything that was recorded at Van Gelder's there's the great sigh of relief […] it's not like you have to work to make it sound better; all you have to do is tie your hands behind your back and not fuck it up. It is that easy."
As for his love of the music, this is what two regulars at RVG's had to say:
"All the folks in the world weren't great jazz enthusiasts—Rudy was. That's the difference. A lot of engineers didn't care."
(Ozzie Cadena, producer for Savoy and Prestige Records)
"He loved the music. Even before he recorded it, he loved the music. [... I]t wasn't some guy just doing it for the money. He put his heart and soul into it."
(Bob Weinstock, producer for Prestige Records) 

Art Blakey's drums; his album Moanin'; the piano of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Wynton Kelly; Jimmy Smith's Hammond organ; Hank Mobley's Soul Station; Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth; the October 26, 1956 session of Miles Davis with his Quintet (his last for Prestige); Andrew Hill's Point of Departure; Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else; his debut on Savoy Records; Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy; Coltrane on Prestige; Coltrane on Blue Note; Coltrane on Impulse! and A Love Supreme; Coltrane with Johnny Hartman; Coltrane with Duke Ellington; Ellington with Coleman Hawkins; Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder; Herbie Hancock and "Cantaloupe Island"; Ray Charles's Genius + Soul = Jazz; Gil Evans's Out of the Cool; Grover Washington's "Mr. Magic"; Coltrane live at Birdland; A Night at Birdland with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; Wes Montgomery Smokin' at the Half Note…

That's only a minor sample of RVG's recordings listed off the cuff, from a list of thousands made for Blue Note, CTI, Impulse!, Muse, Prestige, Savoy, and countless others. From 1951 until a few weeks ago, Van Gelder was the great freelancer.

Whatever the reason he earned the favour of musicians and producers, be it his readiness—"Ready, Rudy?" became a catchphrase—or the chance to avoid New York City Musician Union's officials, what makes Rudy Van Gelder truly unique, though, is that he is the only person ever to have witnessed to so many works of art live, as they happened. Much as in a Greek tragedy, he may have not been able to enjoy the actual music himself, having to tend the recording, curate it and thus contribute to the enjoyment of the rest of us mortals. Rudy Van Gelder is the man who was there.

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