Rudy Van Gelder, the recording engineer, producer and mastering engineer whose contributions to recorded jazz are less like "contributions" and more like "the definition of," died today. He was 91, which is a great age to live to. He outlasted a lot of the musicians he recorded, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and thousands more.
Losing Rudy van Gelder is like losing a fan belt or a distributor cap -- a thing nobody thinks about until it's gone, and the engine doesn't run like it used to. For years, in jazz, Van Gelder was the fan belt, transforming energy from one realm of jazz to another, regulating and processing it, translating it for the recorded album.
“When I achieved what I thought the musicians were trying to do," Van Gelder once said, "the sound bloomed." A very common thing for an engineer to say; a hard thing to do. Getting in the way just enough to guide something along without losing its essence is a tricky balance, especially when that thing is Sonny Rollins playing "You Don't Know What Love Is." The more beautiful the art, the more an engineer usually wants to insert himself into it. Van Gelder knew to get out of the way.
Because of that talent, Rudy Van Gelder is as synonymous with jazz as the saxophone. Seeing his name on the back of a jazz album is like seeing the word "piano" on the back of a jazz album. How many albums did he record? Several thousand? We'd have to be talking not in actual numbers, and instead, percentages. (Even his initials are valuable: when record collectors buy vintage Blue Note pressings, they look for an "RVG" etched into the space between the record's grooves and its label. Its absence indicates the pressing was not personally mastered by Van Gelder, and therefore worth far less. His ear was that widely trusted.)