Special CD Review: The Man Behind the Music: Blue Note Record’s Rudy Van Gelder Re-Releases

Part II

By Brian L. Knight

The celebration of Rudy Van Gelder and his sound engineering wizardry has been broadened with Blue Note Records’ new batch of re-releases of classic jazz recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. In the last issue, the Vermont Review covered the re-mastered works of Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Larry Young, Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderly. This time around, we get to hear Dexter Gordon’s Go (8/27/62); Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil (12/24/64); Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles (6/17/64); Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s Moanin’ (10/30/58) and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (2/25/64). As in all of Blue Note’s releases, there is much more than a tale of musical creation; there is a tale of the people behind the music.

During the summer of 1962, Dexter Gordon went into the studio with pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins to record Go. The album title seemed rather appropriated as the album was recorded shortly before Gordon’s self imposed exile to Europe. Go is represented by only one Gordon original (Cheese Cake). The remaining five tunes, most notably Cole Porter’s "Love For Sale" and Billy Eckstine’s "Second Balcony Jump", display Gordon’s ability to swing and are reminiscent of his earlier work with both Porter and Eckstine, as well as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson.

Dexter Gordon had a long and interesting life in which he disappeared from the jazz scene on many occasions, battled heroine addiction and then eventually finished out his career on top of his game and showered in intense popularity. Like so many of jazz’s greatest stars, Dexter Gordon’s tale of was not unique to the genre. Through the course of jazz history, there have been both moments of tremendous gain and heartfelt loss. Dexter Gordon’s own pianist for the Go sessions, Sonny Clark, was dead from a drug overdose within a year of the album’s recording. Clark recorded many classic albums as a Blue Note leader as well as a sideman. Most notably was Cool Struttin, which made an impact on a linguistic level as well as a musical level. The term "cool struttin" has permutated the jazz culture well into the 1990s.

The unfortunate tale of Clark is also reflected in the life of both Eric Dolphy and Lee Morgan. Eric Dolphy, who is the sole representation of the avant-garde in these releases, first started on the West Coast with Charles Mingus, and was eventually placed into the same category as both John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Dolphy shared the desire to push his music to the limits of the standard jazz sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Dolphy’s playing technique was considerably smoother than the atonalities that defined the free jazz sound. This was accomplished primarily through Dolphy’s use of less traditional instruments such as the flute and bass clarinet, which created smooth, steady sounds even during the most atonal of musical moments.

Besides being known for beautiful solos, Eric Dolphy will also be remembered as being a star who left this world too early. 1964’s Out To Lunch was recorded four months before his sudden death in Europe in 1964. With the unique combination of Dolphy’s instrumentation, Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes and the complex compositions, Out To Lunch is both an unorthodox yet appealing album. Along with the rock and roll likes of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, the world would never get to know how good Dolphy could have become. The slightly older but equally influential Lee Morgan, who is featured on Art Blakey’s Moanin’, is another musician who lost his life at an early age. Unlike Dolphy, who died as a result of a diabetic coma, Lee Morgan was shot by a jealous woman in the New York City nightclub Slug’s (the New York City home base for Sun Ra).

Long before that fateful night in New York City, the twenty-year-old Lee Morgan was playing for the ever-so-stable band of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The Jazz Messengers was one most reliable jazz outfit of the modern era, as they never strayed too far from the be-bop idiom. However, in 1958, when Moanin’ was recorded, every body was playing bop and hard bop and the Jazz Messengers were leading the way. In addition to Blakey and Morgan, this version of the Messengers consisted of Benny Golson (tenor saxophone), Bobby Timmons (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass). This was the third version of the Messengers and perhaps one of the most endearing. Along with Bobby Timmon’s blues-funk piece "Moanin", which received both critical and fan praise, the presence of Golson, who would eventually influence John Coltrane, contributed the classic tunes "Along Came Betty" and "Blues March". Even the man behind all the music, Rudy Van Gelder, gets some airtime on this release as the first 35 seconds of the album features a dialogue between Van Gelder and Lee Morgan.

Perhaps one of Lee Morgan’s greatest fans and followers was Freddie Hubbard, who plays on Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch and Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles. Like Morgan, Hubbard covered many different styles during his long career. He started off playing be-bop, made forays into both avant-garde and hard bop and then gained his biggest popularity in the 1970s with his fusion. On both Empyrean Isles and Speak No Evil, he easily assumes a trumpeting role similar to Miles Davis while on Out To Lunch, his unorthodox playing shows why he also played on great avant-garde albums such as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s Ascension. Although Hubbard contributes to the sound of these three amazing albums, it is the compositional skills of Hancock, Shorter and Dolphy that is the real focus. Within this trio of albums, classic compositions such as Hancock’s "Cantaloupe Island", Shorter’s "Speak No Evil" and Dolphy’s "Hat and Beard" came to the surface for generations of jazz fans to enjoy.

In addition to their solo albums, Shorter and Hancock, along with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams spent much of their time playing for Miles Davis during the mid-late 1960s. With the exception of Miles Davis himself, the quintet members remained active outside of Davis’ band. On his Empyrean Isles, quintet members Carter and Williams joined Hancock as well as "outsider" Freddie Hubbard. Hancock and Carter then joined Wayne Shorter for Speak No Evil. Tony Williams was missing from this date, but the equally adept and energetic Elvin Jones of John Coltrane’s Quartet replaced him. Speak No Evil was recorded on December 24, 1964, which was a Christmas present for the entire music world.

Just as Speak No Evil was cut in one day, so were all of the albums in these Van Gelder remasters. These one-day sessions were not a rarity and they actually reflected the modus operandi of the time. There were no marathon six-month sessions that ate up both wallets and valuable time. This reflected both the economic limitations of being a jazz musician as well as their musical ability. Four to six musicians, who may have never met before, could enter a studio and make magical musical together in the course of one day. With groups like Ron Carter/Tony Williams/Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock, they could cut an album in one take with their eyes closed. It was also the expertise of Rudy Van Gelder who enables these one-day sessions. By creating the perfect environment for the perfect sound, coupled with the amazing musical representation, these classic albums were recorded in record time, yet they display both the production and musical interplay that assumes deliberation.

Read Part 1 of the Rudy reissues

Read Part 3 of the Rudy reissues