In many ways Rudy Van Gelder, the New Jersey-based jazz recording engineer who died on 25 August aged 91, was an anomaly. There aren't many veterans of the recording industry with a similarly impressive list of credits who would claim not to listen to the music because they're focusing on the sound of a session. Marc Myers writes, "he never developed much of a passion for the music, despite being an ear-witness to some of jazz greatest studio performances. Rudy simply didn't have the time to become a pure fan given how much he had to get right with the studio's technology on his sessions. As Rudy put it, he didn't have the luxury of listening for enjoyment."
In a 2012 interview with Myers, Gelder admitted "When I'd see photos of jazz musicians recording or performing, I found myself looking at the mikes, not them." Having recorded seminal LPs by Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, to name a few, one would hope for more of an insight into the sessions. Yet Gelder's recollection of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which he engineered in 1964, was that "The session was hypnotic, exciting and different. But I didn't realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later."
Other producers and engineers, particularly from Gelder's generation, rarely claim to put anything other than the music at the top of their priority list. Whether he truly heard things differently or was simply being more honest than his peers, Gelder's recording philosophy is refreshing.
He also took an unusual route into the industry. An optometrist by trade and a notoriously reticent character, Gelder famously twilighted on a home recording setup in his parents' Hackensack living room. As more and more artists of repute went to work with him, these sessions gradually took over his daytime until he was working full time for labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Vox Records. Whereas most practitioners would learn their craft through studio-based apprenticeships – watching their mentors operate tape machines, consoles and disc cutters and working as part of a sizeable in-house team – Van Gelder began his recording education in solitude, reading much of the domestic recording literature aimed at the amateur market.
There is a fastidious sound to his records, much as if he approached each instrument one by one. His mic placement on the rhythm section gives an impressively crisp sound, partly due to the relatively dry acoustic, but perhaps it also bypasses the sounds that invariably emanated from between the players in the room. If it's an acclaimed sound that defined much of what postwar jazz is thought to be, then it's an acquired taste too.
Van Gelder's personality traits, along with his unique career progression, led to the saddest tragedy of all – the fact he resisted all interview questions about technique and ultimately took the majority of his recording secrets to the grave.