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

By Brian L. Knight


In its continuing celebration of 60 years of producing and recording America’s finest art form, Blue Note Records has dove into its vaults once again. This time around, Blue Note celebrates not only the music, but also the men behind the music. In addition to Blue Note owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the man synonymous with Blue Note’s behind the scenes sound production was Rudy Van Gelder. Gelder was introduced to Blue Note Records owner Alfred Lion by saxophonist Gil Melle, who was both the graphic artist for many of Blue Note album covers and a frequent session man, in October of 1953. Soon after this fateful meeting, Rudy Van Gelder became Blue Note’s #1 sound engineer. In the beginning, Van Gelder recorded music in his parent’s living room when he had free time from his optometrist business in Hackensack, New Jersey. During the summer of 1959, Van Gelder retired from the fixing eyes trade and focussed full time on the music business. Coinciding with his newfound dedication, Van Gelder also moved to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey where he would record with some of jazz’s greatest artists.

Van Gelder’s handiwork can be heard on hundreds of Blue Note albums as well as many other labels’ releases. What made Van Gelder stand out above other engineers was his ability to create a full and robust sound. This was accomplished by the strategic placement of the various instruments within the studio. In comparison to live performances, where the musicians were cramped on small stages, Van Gelder had the luxury of being able to precisely place the sounds where he wanted them. The end result was the music that would eventually become the "Blue Note sound."

Examining Van Gelder’s work is like flipping through a modern jazz encyclopedia – so many artists and their music has passed through the studios of Van Gelder. Blue Note and Van Gelder have joined up once again and re-mastered some the most memorable recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. These albums are Sonny Rollins’ Volume 2, Cannonball Adderly’s Something Else, Larry Young’s Unity, McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy and Horace Silver’s Blowin’ The Blues Away. In the first five re-mastered albums by Blue Note/Van Gelder, there is an amazing representation of music and musicians. Instead of looking at the recordings session by session, lets look at the players and their instruments who assisted Van Gelder in his quest for musical perfection.

The most symbolic instruments of jazz are the instruments that comprise the brass section, which seem particular to the jazz idiom. This is best exemplified by rock and roll bands of the 1960s such as Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago. Simply based on the fact that these bands had a horn section, they were considered "jazz-rock". When in actuality, they were rock bands with a horn section.

In these albums, the horn sections, which are also known as the "front line" for they stand in the front of the band, are represented by the trombone, saxophone and trumpet. The saxophone, invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th Century, seems to be the most popular of these instruments. Over the years, legendary performers such as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Bird, have brought the saxophone to extraordinary fame These Van Gelder re-masters feature the work of the great Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Joe Henderson and Junior Cook. Both Rollins and Adderly made significant impacts as sidemen for Miles Davis but for these sessions, they are featured as leaders. Joe Henderson, who blows away on The Real McCoy and Unity, was a great Blue Note session man who played on additional classic albums by Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Lee Morgan. Junior Cook, the featured saxophonist on Horace Silver’s Blowin' The Blues Away, started his career with Dizzy Gillepsie but would spend most of his career as a sideman and only recorded as a leader sporadically. While Cook, Adderly and Rollins remain true to the modern jazz style, the great Joe Henderson shows sign of both the avant-garde and fusion on his playing on Larry Young’s Unity and McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy.

The trumpeters are represented by the great Miles Davis, who makes a rare appearance as a sideman with Cannonball Adderly (Adderly was a member of Davis’ band at the time); Blue Mitchell, who appears with Horace Silver; and the 20 year old Woody Shaw who contributes 3 compositions to Larry Young’s album. In listening to Davis, you hear the laid back tone that he was developing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As for Blue Mitchell, he gained popularity with his 1973 funk-rock album Graffiti Blues so it is interesting to hear him solely as a bop soloist. The influence of John Coltrane can be heard all over Woody Shaw especially in his composition "The Moontrane". The sole trombonist of these albums is J.J. Johnson who plays on Sonny Rollins’ Volume 2. There couldn’t be a better representative for Johnson was one of the primary forces responsible for introducing the tenor trombone to modern jazz.

The rhythm sections or the "back line" for these albums are anchored down by some classic combinations. On Horace Silver’s session as a leader, he is joined by Louis Hayes and Gene Taylor. Taylor, a journeyman bassist/pianist for the last 40 years, was the bassist of choice for both Silver and trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Similarly, Louis Hayes has remained a sideman most of his years but he has played many of the great players mentioned in these pages such as Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly, Junior Cook, Woody Shaw and McCoy Tyner.

Although a longtime member of Tyner’s bands, Louis Hayes did not play on Tyner’s The Real McCoy. For this session, the ex-Coltrane pianist recruited fellow ex-Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones. In addition, Tyner brought in Miles Davis’ longtime bassist, Ron Carter. The combination of Tyner, Carter, Jones and Joe Henderson makes for a truly spiritual album.

Elvin Jones and his energetic drum playing was in high demand throughout this era. In addition to the aforementioned Tyner album, Jones also played drums for Larry Young; the lone organist of these Van Gelder re-releases. Young, who made influential fusion recordings with Tony Williams, John McGlauglin and Miles Davis throughout the 1960-1970s, shows early signs of his innovation on Unity. Young brought in Jones to help create the organ’s answer to Coltrane’s saxophone playing. Instead of the dominating organ sounds popularized by Jimmy Smith, Young preferred to use the organ as a tool for creating texture. As a result, all of the instruments are equally heard on Unity and there is stress on the overall sound of the album. Not only was Young’s distinctive playing style responsible for this sound, but Van Gelder’s techniques as well. Interestingly enough, no bassist was used for this recording as Young could assume these responsibilities with the multi-purpose Hammond B-3.

Elvin Jones’ oldest brother, Hank Jones, can be heard playing the piano on Cannonball Adderly’s Something Else and he is joined by the unrelated Sam Jones on bass. The drumming for Cannonball’s album is anchored by the high spirited Art Blakey whose drumming has inspired generations of jazz fans. When Blakey wasn’t banging away as a sideman, he was leading the way with his Jazz Messengers.

Blakey, along with fellow Jazz Messenger, pianist Horace Silver, also sat in for the all-star session for Sonny Rollins album. Pianist Thelonious Monk shows up for two ballads on the album and Monk and Silver trade solos on the two Monk’s originals. It is great to hear the two remarkably different but equally innovative playing styles on one session. While Monk played his trademark yet unconventional linear, asymmetrical approach to piano improvisation, Horace Silver showed signs of his well-deserved moniker of "Father of the funk." The youthful Paul Chambers, who spent time playing with Miles Davis, caps of the talent for this special session.

As we can see, these Van Gelder re-masters are a simultaneous celebration of both the musicians and the men who helped along the way. As you listen to these albums and their all-star casts, you come to realize the relationship that developed between art and technology. The musicians on these albums would have sounded great in a small cubicle but thanks to the work of Van Gelder, these recordings are levitated from great to fantastic.

Read Part 2 of the Rudy reissues

Read Part 3 of the Rudy reissues