Rudy Van Gelder: The Cartier-Bresson of Jazz

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Photo of Rudy Van Gelder taken by Francis Wolff

Rudy Van Gelder is the legendary recording engineer of thousands of classic jazz recordings: you’ll find his name on Impulse classics by John Coltrane, CTI classics from Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine, Blue Note evergreens by Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and others, as well as countless Prestige releases. Though not that well-known to the casual listener, jazz devotees know this optometrist turned recording engineer from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Van Gelder started recording early–while still in optometry school–recording albums like Miles Davis and other “Jazz Giants” in his parents’ living room while they were out to dinner. By the late 1950’s, he was a full time recording engineer and in high demand.

If you look at Francis Wolff’s photos of Blue Note sessions, you will occasionally catch a glimpse of the reclusive engineer captured in this remarkable photo book. Once, Susan Stamberg of NPR visited his studios and stupidly clapped to see what the ambient sound was like. You heard a stern voice in the background say, “Don’t do that!”. It was Van Gelder, not wanting to reveal his trade secrets and recording alchemy. Susan, you should know better: don’t mess with RVG!

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What does this have to do with the great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson? Both Henri Cartier-Bresson and Van Gelder captured and immortalized special moments in time, often with equipment and technology now considered old and antiquated: Ampex 2-track machines, tube microphones, simple set-up.

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For Cartier-Bresson, it was a Leica manual camera. Cameras are now mostly digital and only die hard audiophiles bother buying vacuum tube hi-fi gear. But just as the Leica can deliver a clearer image of an event, so can vintage tube gear produce a better recording than most 16 or 24 track digital recording studios. Analog–not digital–is still the preferred technology for many enthusiasts, whether in photography or recorded music.

I’m a big fan of photography and an audiophile. Cartier-Bresson and Rudy Van Gelder have brought me timeless hours of happiness. Let’s hear it for them.

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