“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.”
Jeff Forlenza is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.