KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The jazz world has lost one of those names you see on the liner notes all the time, someone who made big contributions to music. Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder died at his home in New Jersey yesterday at the age of 91. For more than six decades, Van Gelder's innovative approach to recording created a trademark studio sound on classics by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and many, many more. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.
FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: By his own admission, Rudy Van Gelder played trumpet badly. He made his contribution to jazz by twisting knobs and setting microphones. He started by recording his high school friends in his parents living room in Hackensack, N.J., in the 1940s. Those early sessions turned out to be a workshop for what would eventually become a sound that many jazz fans call definitive.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORACE SILVER SONG, "SONG FOR MY FATHER")
CONTRERAS: Van Gelder was notorious for being secretive about his recording techniques. But part of his method involved how he placed each instrument in its own sonic space, allowing for both the subtleties and dynamics of the way musicians manipulated the brass and wood of acoustic jazz instruments. He was famously meticulous, and he explained why to NPR in 1993.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RUDY VAN GELDER: What we're doing is important. As opposed, for example, to a club date where a musician goes and a couple of hundred people are going to hear what he played that night, if he's making a record, even if it's not a very successful record, thousands of people ultimately are going to hear it. And I consider that important.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "IF I WERE A BELL")
CONTRERAS: In 1959, Van Gelder moved from his parents living room to a custom recording studio in a house he had built in nearby Englewood Cliffs. It had high cathedral ceilings, appropriate for a space that would become a shrine for jazz musicians and labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse. He became a central part of the creative process.
SONNY ROLLINS: It's like my horn, Rudy was there. He was always the guy.
CONTRERAS: Saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins was one of the many musicians who recorded what would become jazz classics in Van Gelder's studio. Rollins says that because the engineer was so good at what he did, the musicians could focus on doing their jobs.
ROLLINS: We came and did our recordings and we left. It wasn't the days when everybody comes by and listens in the booth to see how it sounds. No, no, if we did it, we knew it would be impeccable, perfect.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "ST. THOMAS")
CONTRERAS: And Van Gelder says it was always about the musicians.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
VAN GELDER: We'd get albums that sound the way they wanted it to sound. The rest of it can all be very difficult - including me, personally and any other way. But I try to make sure that nothing leaves here that's not flattering to the musician and that is not what the musician wants. When they tell me that they like what they hear, what comes out of here, then that's my reward.
CONTRERAS: And the more than 20,000 recordings that Rudy Van Gelder had a hand in creating are our rewards. Felix Contreras, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER SONG, "INFANT EYES")
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