Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Max Roach Legacy Collection Unveiled

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Embellishing a style introduced by Kenny Clarke a few years earlier, Roach devised a fresh approach to playing his instrument that initially mystified and thoroughly challenged other drummers. On his first recordings with Parker, he displayed a highly responsive, contrapuntal style. The time was established on the hi-hat or top cymbals, rather than the snare and bass drums. A regular pulse, softly played on the bass drum, provided a foundation (or "bottom") for the music. This was a holdover from the old way of playing. Added to the recipe were comments on accents made on the snare and bass drums, often in close conjunction.

In essence, Roach worked with techniques out of the drums' lively tradition, some of them stemming from Jo Jones, some from Sid Catlett, more than a few from Kenny Clarke, and combined them with techniques he invented himself. His performances were highlighted by singular patterns that were used in fills and solos and also appeared in one form or another when he played a purely supportive role. He consistently showed how to effectively use space, silence and dynamics. Roach made a case for the drummer as a musician.

Because he practiced incessantly and was a player who performed around the clock, Roach developed admirable technique and coordination. He concentrated on what drummers call independence, playing different rhythms with each appendage, which created new levels of interest for the attentive listener. He began to liberate the drum set in a major way. His talent, razor-sharp mind and inventive approach to music resulted in new applications of drum rudiments and increased use and integration of the bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat.

It was no longer just a matter of announcing time and establishing a groove. Roach took things way beyond that, bringing into play his sensitivity to sound and the so-called melodic possibilities of the instrument, while venturing into previously unexplored areas of drum set technique.”
- Burt Korall, insert notes to The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions [Mosaic Records MD7-201]

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is hard at work on an extended piece about drummer Max Roach, who along with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus, deserves to be recognized as one of the creators of Bebop and the style of music that predominated the post World War II modern Jazz movement.

While this feature is in the works, we thought we’d call your attention to the following announcement which appeared in the April 24, 2014 edition of Downbeat Magazine. and to the video tribute to Max that follows it.

© -Geoffrey Himes/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“At a public ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2014 the Library of Congress unveiled the Max Roach Legacy Collection, the drummer's personal papers, recordings and memorabilia, which the library had acquired from the Roach family a year earlier.

To give a sense of the roughly 100,000 items in the holdings, samples were spread across two tables. At the end of one table were several artifacts related to Roach's landmark 1961 album, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. The artifacts include the contract with Candid Records, the original, unused album artwork, a program from a live performance and a portion of the score written in Roach's own hand.

Roach was a collector. He saved anything that might document his career: contracts, photos, posters, programs, reel-to-reel tapes, rehearsal cassettes, videos, scores, written correspondence, address books, date books, magazines, newspaper clippings and more. The documentation filled the basement cage of his Upper West Side apartment building; it spread out to as many as three self-storage units.

One item in the Library of Congress collection that jazz historians will be particularly interested in is the unpublished manuscript for an autobiography that Roach had worked on with writer Amiri Baraka (who died Jan. 9, 2014).

"He had a strong sense of his place in history, and he wanted it documented," the drummer's oldest daughter, Maxine Roach, said at the Library of Congress. "In the last years of his life, I asked him, 'What do you want us to do with all the stuff you have in storage?' He said, 'I don't care where it goes, but I want it to stay together.'"

Maxine Roach had attended the April 2010 unveiling of the Dexter Gordon Collection at the Library of Congress with Maxine Gordon, Dexter's widow. Roach was so impressed by the experience that she convinced her stepmother and her four siblings to give the Max Roach Collection the same home.

"When we were kids, they were just boxes of junk," said Maxine's brother Daryl. "But as I got older, when I spent a summer setting up his drum kit at European festivals, I realized he was more than just my dad. And now, seeing some of the stuff in those boxes, it's like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I can see the breadth of his associations. I can see that he wanted to be viewed not just as a musician but also in a sociopolitical-economic context. He was a holistic thinker."

The Library of Congress plans to create a searchable database of all the artifacts in the collection. If a musician, academic, journalist or blogger wants to research the Freedom Now Suite, for example, he or she can request it and the staff will know which carton contains the related materials. The staff will bring the materials to a table at the library's reading room so that the person doing research can examine them up close.

"The purpose of these archives is not to collect boxes and put them on the shelf," said Larry Appelbaum, senior music reference librarian and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress. "We want people to come and use them."”

—Geoffrey Himes”

The following video tribute to Max is set to George Coleman’s Shirley from Max Roach + 4 On The Chicago Scene [EmArcy 36132; Mosaic MD7-201]. In addition to George on tenor saxophone and Max on drums, the quintet includes Booker Little on trumpet, Eddie Baker on piano and Bob Cranshaw on bass.

Please click on the “X” to close out of the ads.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Randy Johnston - "Walk On"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In a recent Downbeat magazine “Blindfold Test,” Eric Harland, one of the current crop of terrific young drummers on today’s Jazz scene said:

“Lewis Nash? No? Kenny Washington!? [after he was given the information that the tune and the players he was being asked to identify was Magic Beans from Benny Green’s Benny's Crib on Sunnyside, 2013 with Benny on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums].
“Only a few people can swing like that. When Kenny or Lewis play swing, it's a lifestyle. They live and breathe it. The trio is great. ... 4 stars.”

I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay a drummer than to say that they make the music swing.

Or as the late announcer Chuck Niles often declared when introducing his next track on his Los Angeles, CA FM Jazz radio program: “straight-ahead and swinging.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles takes great joy in finding music by the current crop of Jazz musicians that’s played in a straight-ahead and swinging manner.

In this regard, Benny Green and Kenny Washington were responsible for my discovery of guitarist Randy Johnson as they along with bassist Ray Drummond formed the rhythm section on Randy’s Walk On Muse CD [MCD-5432].

I didn’t know who Randy was but since Benny and Kenny were on the date, I thought I’d take a punt on this recording.

I’m sure glad I did as Randy’s blues-drenched, straight-ahead and swinging guitar style has since become a staple of my Jazz guitarist playlists.

Here’s more background on Randy and Walk On from the CD’s insert notes as authored by Bob Porter of WBGO Jazz Radio.

“Randy Johnston was working in Harlem at Small's Paradise with singer Delia Griffin when Etta Jones heard him for the first time. While her accompaniment has rarely included guitar (except on records), Etta Jones knows a good musician when she hears one. Within a few months, she and her partner, Houston Person, began dropping Randy's name among those on the lookout for new talent. Randy quickly began showing up on Etta's recordings -then Houston's.

Walk On is his first album as a leader. His accompanists are among New York's finest. Kenny Washington was the first player who came to Randy's mind. The versatile young percussionist is a favorite of almost everyone. Kenny, born in Brooklyn (5/29/58), has been a regular member of working groups led by Betty Carter, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and, at this writing, Milt Jackson. Randy felt that Washington would be able to handle-with-ease the range of material for this first recording. One quick listen will tell you that the drum chair is in good hands.

Bill Easley plays a whole variety of reed instruments and has been active in Broadway show bands as well as studio work around New York. Originally from upstate New York he has worked out of Pittsburgh and Memphis prior to settling in the New York area. His long list of affiliations includes George Benson, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy McGriff. His own albums have appeared on Sunnyside and Milestone.

Benny Green seems the natural heir to what Wynton Kelly represented in the 50s and 60s. His lines are clean and cliche free and his style blends easily with much of the music being made today. While his customary working situation finds him at the head of a trio, his work with Art Blakey made certain that his abilities as a band pianist would have the best possible tutelege. He currently records for Blue Note.

Ray Drummond is a major league performer on bass and has been for many years. Raised in the San Francisco bay area he was the bassist of choice for travelling musicians coming to that part of the country prior to his move to the Apple.

The material chosen by Randy and producer Houston Person covers a lot of territory. The Jumping Blues is a Kansas City anthem long associated with the composer Jay McShann while Moanin' is the quintessential Jazz Messenger standard (one that Benny Green knows very well). Crazy She Calls Me is a feature for Randy's best ballad playing while his compositions, The Queen's Samba (a dedication to Etta Jones) and the title track, Walk On, demonstrate Randy's abilities as a writer as well as a player.

This album is being released in January 1992 at a time when much of the country will be battling chilly, winter weather. The music on this disc will certainly help to keep your soul warm at any time of year. The album title says it all. It is certainly time for thirty-five year old, ex-Detroiter Randy Johnston to take center stage and to Walk On - into the spotlight!

I’ve selected the title track to accompany the following video tribute to Randy which includes a collection of images of all of his recordings as well as some photographs of him.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Maria Schneider's Classical Jazz: No Boundaries

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles delights in discovering new writings that provide additional perspectives on the music of some of its favorite artists and sharing excerpts from them with its readers.

Such is the case with the following pieces on Maria Schneider by Zachary Woolfe as published in The New York Times and the essay on Maria that follows it which was written by the Books and Arts staff of the The Economist and published it in its March 8th-14th, 2014 edition of that distinguished magazine

© -Zachary Woolfe and The New York Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For a long time, big-band jazz relied on a swinging but implacable wall of brass: the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Schneider absorbed what she calls that “frontal load of decibels and power and energy,” and she has never abandoned it completely. But the music she began composing when she moved to New York in the late 1980s took on a different character.

‘I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors: the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,’ [Maria Schneider] said. Schneider wanted the muscle and precision you get with 15 or 20 loud instruments, and she wanted the backbone of improvisation that is fundamental to jazz. But she was also drawn to the colors of the orchestra: shifting, ethereal prisms out of Ravel and Debussy. …  ‘My pieces, many of them, at least the newer things, are through-composed like classical music,’ she said. ‘They go through different sections, so the soloist has to bring the piece from here to there. It’s not ‘This is my solo, I’m going to show you everything I know about the instrument,’ which most big-band music is: kind of an ego show for each soloist. In mine they have to carry the piece and tell the story.’

In a way, Schneider has been trying to reconcile invention and rigor since childhood. Her first piano teacher happened to be a raucous stride pianist who exposed Schneider to the virtuosity of Art Tatum, along with the expected Chopin ├ętudes. Though Schneider studied classical composition at the University of Minnesota, she turned increasingly back to jazz.

After graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, she moved to New York and began working as a copyist, churning out instrumental parts from orchestral scores. It was through a copying gig that she met and started working as an assistant to Gil Evans, who was Miles Davis’s arranger of choice in the glory days of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. Evans was a revelation. He would regularly bring in instruments that weren’t part of the big-band palette — French horns, flutes, oboes — and his writing willfully stretched the abilities of his players.

‘Gil wanted me to re orchestrate one of his pieces for big band,’ Schneider recalled. ‘I was in my 20s and feeling completely out of my league. And one day I came in with what I wrote, and he was horrified. He said: “No, no, no. I want these low instruments at the top of their range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.” He wanted people playing completely at their opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, Oh, my God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn. That’s the stuff that comes from a personality searching for his own inner world.’

At night, she composed her own music for a band she started with the trombonist John Fedchock, a classmate at Eastman. (She married Fedchock too, but both the marriage and that first band dissolved after a few years.) Following the lead of Evans, she tweaked her band to include various winds. She also played with orchestration, so that a fluegelhorn might share a melody line with a trombone and a bass flute, making an alluring blend of brassy and smooth. ‘I started mixing people, mixing the colors,’ she said, ‘so when you listen to it, it might sound like a French horn — and there’s no French horn in the band.’

Back in the early 1990s, Schneider’s band played a weekly residency at a club in Greenwich Village. Every Monday for five years, she loaded all the music stands and the scores into a cab and packed them up again at the end of the night for the ride back to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The members of the band each got $25; she would pay herself $15. “Every week it was a logistical hell,” she said. “I don’t know how I had the energy for that. You’re different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.”

She worked for years to flesh out the orchestral elements in her style of jazz, through her debut, Evanescence (1994), a combination of brassiness and lightness; Allegresse (2000), with its Brazilian accents; and her 2004 masterpiece, Concert in the Garden, whose pieces have the sweep and drama of tone poems. But what she had not done until recently was write for an actual orchestra, with its full complement of strings and its lack of improvisation. It was not long after Concert in the Garden that she met the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who came to prominence singing Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and emerged as a bold advocate for contemporary music. Upshaw had gotten in the habit of attending Schneider’s band’s annual Thanksgiving-week performances at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan.

‘It was about the third year that I was there when I thought to myself, Wow, I wonder if she would ever consider writing anything for me.’ Upshaw said. ‘I know that our worlds don’t collide typically, but what would happen if we tried to do something together?’ Schneider had never incorporated lyrics before, and Upshaw sensed she was anxious. ‘But she was game,’ she added. ‘And it’s one of the best musical experiences that I’ve ever had.’

The relaxed, seductive ‘Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,’ which Upshaw sang with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, was the first product of the collaboration. Three years later there was Winter Morning Walks, settings of the poetry of Ted Kooser. This was a more daring combination, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the score as written, as members of her band improvised.”
- Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, April 12, 2013
[Winter Morning Walks would go on to win three Grammys in 2013].

© -The Economist, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


A daring composer defies categories.

“A SNUG one-bedroom flat near Manhattan's Central Park serves as home and studio to Maria Schneider, composer and bandleader. Her sister's abstract oils adorn the walls, and pots and pans hang from the ceiling of a tiny kitchen space that could fit in a cupboard. Her prized possession, a 29-year-old Yamaha upright piano, dominates the living room. When Ms Schneider composes, the idea for a new song can come to her in a flash. Or she can struggle for months to weave together a work worth performing.

‘It can happen just when you're hitting your head against the wall because you can't come up with a solution,’ she says. ‘Then it can happen in the middle of the night when you're … just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there.’

The agony and the eventual ecstasy of Ms Schneider's woodshedding sessions have yielded music that has altered the notion of what a modern jazz band can sound like. When her 19-member Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra appears at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Centre later this month, the audience can expect to hear works that defy categorisation. One moment, the group can be freewheeling and jazzy. A song or two later, it glides with ease through Ravel- or Chopin-like movements. Then a chamber-music-style duet can seize the spotlight while the rest of the musicians sit in silence.

Ms Schneider's daring compositions have helped her to elbow her way onto the list of jazz's finest living composers. In 2012 the influential annual poll of critics in DownBeat, a jazz magazine, bestowed upon Ms Schneider triple-treat status as the genre's best big-band leader, arranger and composer. Those who have knocked on her door requesting commissioned works include the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Danish Radio Orchestra. Among the oddest non-musical requests came from a wine producer in Germany who asked her to select the grapes for a wine that now bears her name - the Reichsrat von Buhl Maria Schneider Jazz Riesling.

Ms Schneider stunned the classical music world in January, when her 2013 recording, Winter Morning Walks, won three Grammy Awards, including one for best contemporary classical composition. The project set verse from a collection by Ted Kooser, a former poet laureate in America, to music. The poems, from "Winter Morning Walks: 100 Post Cards to Jim Harrison", document his reflections on life and nature while he was recovering from cancer treatment.

Ms Schneider and the Iowa-born Mr Kooser are both Midwesterners, and from adjoining states. Like the poet, Ms Schneider has also had cancer. To interpret the verses musically, the composer pinned two dozen of the poems she liked most above her piano and brainstormed melodies. In one, "Walking by Flashlight", she found images and reflections that were less about cancer and more about nature:

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side, coyote, raccoon,
field mouse, sparrow each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.

Ms Schneider's journey to band leader began in the tiny farm town of Windom, Minnesota. A local music teacher, Evelyn Butler, introduced her to the piano when she was five years old. By the age of eight, she had written her first song.
Becoming an instrumentalist, though, did not seem to be in the stars. She tried her hand at the clarinet, and was a "horrible" violin player. She also struggled as a youngster to play trills on the piano. ‘I'm not a performer,’ Ms Schneider says.
‘That's just not the animal that I am.’

After studying music at the University of Minnesota and the Eastman School of Music, she decided that band leading and composing were her calling. She moved to New York and became an assistant to Gil Evans, who had arranged music for some of Miles Davis's recordings. At the same time, she was seeking ways to create her own voice and vision for an orchestra. Evanescence (1994) showcases her skill at writing gorgeous melodies for horns and shifting moody harmonies.

Ms Schneider also went her own way when she dumped the traditional record labels and signed on with ArtistShare, a New York-based digital-record label that distributes its music only on the internet. A record label usually foots the bill for the recording's cost and takes the lion's share of its profits. Instead, Ms Schneider raises the money from fans in exchange for giving them a behind-the-scenes view of the recording process or a credit as a producer. She made history when a 2004 recording, Concert in the Garden, became the first digital download-only CD to win a Grammy award.

Ms Schneider's first priority is making music that moves her listeners, though attracting more donors for her recordings would help. Winter Morning Walks cost about $200,000 to produce, which is pricey by jazz standards. ‘The only thing I'm concerned about is whether the listeners are brought out of their worries, and if the music reminds them how beautiful life can be,’ Ms Schneider says. ‘It's a tall order.’

Spectacle movies have been a part of all ages and phases of Hollywood film productions. Unfortunately, the music scores written for many of these blockbusters sound as though they should be accompanying Armageddon. Imagine my delight then when I first heard Alex North’s exceptionally beautiful love theme which he composed and orchestrated for the 1960 movie extravaganza, Spartacus.

Such delight was even more enhanced when pianist Bill Evans recorded The Love Theme from Spartacus as part of his 1963 Verve LP Conversations with Myself, an album that is particularly noteworthy for Bill’s ingenious use of multi tracking.

In his definitive biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Peter Pettinger observes: “A number of the tunes [on Conversations with Myself] started with brief atmospheric introductions, colored by delicate, pointillistic rippling. This was Evans the orchestrator at work, thinking perhaps of the pianissimo flutes, clarinets and harps of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. A good example of this was the ruminatory Love Theme from Spartacus.

Forty years later in 2003, similar observations might made about Maria Schneider’s arrangement of North’s compelling and radiant melody which she performed with The Metropole Orchestra Big Band [sans strings] at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in 2003 and which forms the soundtrack to the following video tribute to Maria and the Metropole Orkest.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jammin' with Joey DeFrancesco

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Organ-tenor ensembles have been a staple of the Jazz performance legacy for the better part of 40 years.

Pipe organs were actually the first organs available to Jazz artists, Pioneering musicians like Thomas “Fats” Waller used pipe organs in churches, as accompaniment to silent films and of course in ensembles featuring secular music.

It was the introduction of the first electric organ by Laurens Hammond in 1935 and the subsequent development of a speaker containing two rotating baffles by Don Leslie that jump-started the popular interest in the instrument by players in all genres of music.

Of course the most outstanding quality of the Hammond organ was its (relative) portability. Like its predecessor, the theater organ (Developed by Robert Hope-Jones and introduced by the Wurlitzer organization in the early 1900s), there were multiple stops and pedals for the imitation of other instruments and to allow for orchestral voicing of the music.

Jimmy Smith is generally credited with having pieced together all of the elements of the technique inherited from the pipe, theater and electric organ traditions of Jazz and the blues and rhythm and blues influences which are the critical factors in creating a sound which is so accessible it often becomes the doorway by which Jazz fans first discover their love for the music.

Additionally, we probably have Messrs. Waller, Smith, Bill Basie, Milt Buckner, Wild Bill Davis and a host of others to thank for many of the techniques which are now commonplace for keyboard players who work with synthesizers.

Growing up in Philadelphia, right smack in the middle of the Northeast corridor, Joey DeFrancesco was surrounded by this tradition and by the club scene which nutured it. On this his fifth recording for Columbia, Joey pays tribute to this legacy with an all-star, live date captured at the recently opened New York nightclub which takes its name from its famous predecessor, the Five Spot.”
- Al Pryor, insert notes to Joey DeFrancesco: Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805]

Aside from his musical inventiveness and blazing technique, I’ve always felt that other qualities have made Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco one of the more admirable members of the current Jazz generation including his amiability, geniality and respect for the Jazz tradition.

Jazz has always been about jam sessions or in the parlance of the music - Jammin.’ In the early years of the music, jam sessions were where you learned your craft. You sought out places to jam, sat in and measured yourself against the skills and ideas of other musicians.

Jam sessions could be competitive, sometimes brutally so and, in this regard, they could be a test of courage. My initiation into the world of jammin’ involved getting up on the stage with a half dozen or so horn players and playing a blistering uptempo version of All The Things You Are for what seemed like an eternity while each hornman took an extended solo. When it was over, my right hand was shaking so bad from playing a continuous cymbal beat that it couldn’t hold a glass of water. I don’t know how musical it was, but I got it done. I guess I cut it because I was allowed to stay on the bandstand to play the next tune.

More often, though, jammin’ is about learning to play with musicians whose style and approach are different if not singular. Experiencing such diversity served to broaden your Jazz vocabulary and helped you learn other ways to express yourself in the music.

Cats like baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Milt Hinton played with anyone and everyone. Swing-era saxophonist Coleman Hawkins employed some of the earliest beboppers in his band because he wanted to learn the “new music” from associating with them. Even The King of Swing, clarinetist Benny Goodman, tried his hand at be-bop for awhile and other Swing Era icons like clarinetist Woody Herman, drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James led big bands that fit very nicely into the modern era.

No one on today’s Jazz scene is more into jammin’ with musicians from all eras and styles of Jazz than Joey DeFrancesco. If you have any doubts about this assertion all you need do is check the personnel on the recordings he’s made over the last 15 years or so.

Although I didn’t recognize it as a conscious choice on Joey’s part because I had nothing to compare it to at the time, my first awareness of his inclination to such diversity was Joey’s Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805] on which he appeared with a variety of guest stars including tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Grover Washington, Jr., Kirk Whalum and Houston Person and one of the icons of the Hammond B-3 organ, “Captain” Jack McDuff.

Since then, Joey’s been in the recorded company of Jimmy Smith, who more than any other musician is responsible for bringing the Hammond B-3 organ into the modern Jazz era, saxophonists Teddy Edwards, George Coleman, and Gary Bartz, guitarists Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, Ron Eschete, Randy Johnson, Jake Langley and Danny Gatton, and drummers Jimmy Cobb, Billy Hart and Jeff Hamilton.

He even formed a super trio with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers and went on a world tour with them - talk about moving your ears in new directions!

For many years, Joey’s has primarily been in the company of guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, two marvelous musicians who can adapt their styles to work with any horn player.

In person, Joey’s admiration for his fellow Jazz musicians is almost palpable - he looks like a kid in a toy store who can’t wait for his turn to make a choice.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rudy Van Gelder: A Signature Sound Revisited

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

[Rudy van Gelder died on August 25, 2016. He was 91 years old. The Jazz World owes him an enormous debt of gratitude not only for what he did in preserving so much recorded Jazz, but also because of the absolutely first-rate way in which he did it. The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is re-posting this earlier feature as an homage to him. It’s our very small way of repaying the debt.]

I never thought much about the quality of the sound on the Blue Note LPs that I purchased in the 1950s and 60s. I didn't need to.

Blue Note’s sound quality was something that one could take for granted because the now, legendary Rudy van Gelder was the commanding force behind it and, as you’ll come to understand after reading the following interview, he obviously gave it a great deal of thought.

The sound on Blue Note’s albums had a “presence” that wrapped the listener in an audio environment which was dynamic and vibrant.

The sound came forward; it reached out; it enveloped.

Rudy made the sound seem as though it was emanating from musicians who were performing it in one’s living room.

In a way, this is more than an analogy because Rudy’s initial recording studio was the living room in his parents’ home in HackensackNJ before he built his own studio in near-by Englewoods CliffsNJ.

Rudy doesn’t talk much about himself or his views on the subject of sound engineering.

Fortunately, James Rozzi was able to interview him at length and publish Rudy’s responses to his questions in the November 1995 edition of the now defunct Audio Magazine.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought this rare glimpse of Rudy van Gelder discussing himself and his technical approach to sound recording would make an interesting feature for its readers.

It is hard to imagine let alone conceive of what The World of Jazz would have been like if Rudy Van Gelder hadn’t been around.

© -James Rozzi/Audio Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dr. Rudy Van Gelder’s formal education was in optometry, but his heart and the majority of his professional years have been devoted full-time to the recording industry.

Ask any Jazz buff about Rudy, and they’ll name him as the recording engineer responsible for all those classic Blue Note and Prestige Records, among almost countless others.

This interview, one of the very few that Rudy has granted in his 40 plus years in the business, was conducted in his Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio, a gorgeous facility just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. I thank him for sharing his history and his views.

It’s a given in the Jazz world that you have set the standards for Jazz recordings for the past 40 years. In an ever-changing industry, how do you continue to maintain consistent quality in your recordings?

I prefer to do my own masters, my own editing. By ‘my own,’ I mean, I want it to be done here. It’s not that I influence what it is. It’s just that I need to be involved in the whole process – up to and including the finished product – in order to give my clients what they expect of me, which is the reason why they are coming here. They agree upon that before we can do anything.

This is really the only major stipulation I have, that I do the process. It’s not because it is expensive, because the expense is minimal. I purposely keep it that way because I don’t want the money to be a part of their decision.

The point is that I’d like to have at least some measure of control over the finished sound before it’s sent for replication to the plant.

This is contrary to the way most studios work.

The business, at least from my point of view, has really become fragmented – more like the movie industry. There are engineers who do Jazz recording who don’t own the studio and don’t have anything to do with the maintenance, ownership or operation of the studio.

They just go to a studio as a freelance engineer and use the facility for their own clients. Obviously, this is not the situation here. I own the studio, I run the studio and I maintain it. It’s my responsibility, I’m here everyday, not somebody else. It reflects me.

Being involved in the complete digital post-production is highly unusual for any studio. Would you please explain it?

Once we have gotten to the point of recording and mixing the two-track tape that has all of the tunes the client wants for the CD, the next step is to get together with the producer or the musician, whoever is in charge of the project – and sequence it.

We have to put the tunes in the order that they will appear in on the CD, get all the timings in between the songs precise, and takes all the noises out.

As for the medium for that, the most common medium is DAT [digital audio tape]. Now most people – including musicians and producers, except for those who work here – believe that this is a master tape. That format was not designed to be and is incapable of being a master.

There are other elements required for CD replication that cannot be incorporated into a DAT.

There is just no room on a DAT for the information which tells your CD player to go to track one when you put a CD in and press "play." The information that makes this possible has to be incorporated on the CD. The DAT must be transferred to another medium that incorporates this information. This studio uses a CD-R. Prior to the CD-R, 1630 was the de facto standard. I consider that now obsolete. Most recording studios do not get involved in this process.

If most recording studios don't get involved in digital post-production, then how is it commonly done?

The very fact that most recording studios don't care to do it has created the existence of what are called mastering houses. They don't have studios. They don't even have a microphone. They just put the numbers on there and then transfer from one medium to another.

Why are you so concerned with accom­plishing this process yourself? Isn't the equipment expensive?

Yes, it's very expensive, very difficult to ac­quire and maintain. The problem is that there can be processing at this stage, quite extensive processing.

Intentionally changing the sound from that of the DAT?

Intentionally changing the sound! Chang­ing the loudness to softness, the highs to lows. Yes, it's a very elaborate procedure; it is a part of the recording process that most people don't even know exists.

Who is responsible for making the decision to alter the sound at this late a stage in the recording process?

Whoever is following the course of the pro­ject, usually whoever is paying for it or their representative. I'm now defining why I in­sist on doing everything myself. And you can extend this into the reissue process too. Reissuing is nothing but post-production. The people who were originally involved in the recording are no longer there, or they no longer own it. These mastering decisions on reissues are being made by someone else, someone affiliated with the company who now owns the material.

What are your feelings on issuing alternate takes?

Now, to me that's just a sad event which has befallen the record industry. The rejected outtakes have been renamed "alternate takes" for marketing reasons. It's a disser­vice to the artist. It's a disservice to the mu­sic. It's also rampant throughout the land, and I'm just telling you how I feel about it. I would recommend to all musicians: Don't let the outtakes get out of your hands. Of course, that may be easier said than done.

You must be disappointed by much of what has been released as alternate takes.
Yes, when I hear some of this stuff, I'm re­minded of all the problems I had, particu­larly on these outtakes. It's like reliving all of the difficulties of my life again. So I don't take a lot of pleasure in that because I know I can do a lot better now, and all that does is reinforce my uneasiness. Of course, when it was a recording problem, the music was usually still so good that it was worth it to me. And the fact that it's still being heard— in many cases being heard better than ever before—is an incredible experience. And it's clean, with no noise. I don't like to com­plain too much.

I feel that way very often myself, the way you described, being able to hear the music better than ever. I'm not a person who locks into the sound as closely as I do the music. The music is all-important to me, but sometimes I become distracted by how bad the sound is. It seems that a big prob­lem in translating those old recordings onto CD is the sound of the bass. It be­comes very boomy.

Well, you can't blame that entirely on the people who are doing the mastering. That particular quality is inherent in the record­ing techniques of the time—the way bass players played, the way they sounded, the way their instruments sounded. They don't sound like that now. The music has changed the way the artists play. Now everything has got to be loud. A loud .drum­mer today is a lot louder than a loud drummer of 30 or even 20 years ago. It's all relative. But as far as that certain quality you're talking about, some of it is very good, by the way. There were some excellent bass recordings made at that time because the bass player and I got together on what we were trying to do.

Considering the reverence given to the his­torical Blue Note recordings and the fact that they were accomplished direct to two-track, do you get many requests nowadays to record direct to two-track?

 Usually they say, "I want to go direct to two-track like the old days." And I say, "Sure, I'll do that." I can still do it, or we can record to the 24-track digital machine. As far as the musicians are concerned, regarding their performance out in the studio, that's trans­parent to them. There's no difference in the setup. I sort of think two-track while I'm recording and actually run a two-track recording of the session, which very often serves as the finished mix.

But this is the real world now. The musicians will listen to the playback, and the bass player will say, "Gee, I played two bad notes going into the bridge of the out-melody. Can you fix that, Rudy?" Now, it used to be that when a client asked for a two-track session, I would never run a multi-track backup. They didn't want to get involved in it, for money reasons. They didn't want to spend the money for the tape or didn't want to have to mix it af­ter the session. I went along with that for a long time. But the bass player would still come in, hoping to fix wrong notes, and I'd sit there like a fool and say, ‘Well, I can't do anything about it. The producer didn't want to spend the money for multi-tracking.’

So I decided I wasn't going to do that anymore. I think of it as a two-track date— we're talking about a small acoustic jazz band now, not any kind of heavy produc­tion thing—and I run a multi-track backup. Then when the bass player asks to fix a cou­ple of notes, I look at the producer or who­ever is paying for the session, and that be­comes his decision, not mine. He now has to answer the bass player.

So the final product may consist of both multi-track and two-track recordings?

That happens. Right. And my life is a lot happier. And the producers have come around a little bit too.

How did you first become affiliated with Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records?

There was a saxophone player and arranger by the name of Gil Melle. He had a little band and a concept of writing, and I recorded him. This was before I met Alfred. I recorded it in my Hackensack studio in my parents’ home. So somehow—and I was not a party to it—he sold that to Alfred to be released on Blue Note. And Alfred want­ed to make another one. So he took that recording to the place he was going. It hap­pened to be in New York at the WOR recording studios. He played it for the engi­neer, who Alfred had been using up until that time, and the engineer said, "I can't get that sound. I can't record that here. You'd better go to whoever did it." Remember, I wasn't there; this is how it was related to me. And that's what brought Alfred to me. He came to me, and he was there forever.

Those Blue Note records, they're just so beautiful....


Did Alfred and you work at producing those jazz masterpieces? Did he have you splice solos?

Yes, he did. He was tough to work for com­pared to anyone else. He knew what he wanted. He knew what that album should sound like before he even came into the stu­dio. He made it tough for me. It was defi­nitely headache time and never easy. On the other hand, I knew it was important, and he had a quality that gave me confi­dence in him. The whole burden of creating for him—what he had in mind—that was mine. And he knew how to extract the maximum effort from the musi­cians and from me too. He was a master at that. I think one of the reasons our relation­ship lasted so long was because he listened to what other people were doing parallel to our product. I don't believe he ever heard anything that was better than what we were doing. I have no doubt that if he had heard someone doing it better than what I was doing, he would have gone there. But he never did, and that made it possible for me to build this studio. I knew he was always there.

Once you developed that sound, you knew exactly what to do initially. When the mu­sicians walked in, you knew right where everything should be regarding micro­phone placement and all of that. And you went from there. From that point, it was just minor alterations according to that session.

That's very well put, and do you know why that was? Because Alfred used to come here often. He used to bring the same people out in various combinations. They all knew what I was like. Everybody would come in and know exactly where their stand was, where they would play. It was home. There were no strangers. They knew the results of what they were going to do. There was nev­er any question about it, so they could focus on the music.

Then when Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records started with you, there was that whole crowd of musicians, sometime cross­ing over personnel.

Well, Weinstock would very often follow Al­fred around, but with a different kind of project in mind. And you know, when I ex­perimented, I would experiment on Bob Weinstock's projects. Bob didn't think much of sound; he still doesn't. He doesn't care. So if I got a new microphone and I wanted to try it on a saxophone player, I would never try it on Alfred's date. Wein­stock didn't give a damn, and if it worked out, great. Alfred would benefit from that. 

I've always thought of the Prestige dates as a more accurate indication of what was happening in the clubs. Although I know that after a Blue Note session wound down, the musicians could go out into the clubs and play original tunes, with Pres­tige it was mostly standards. That's what they went out and jammed on. And that deserves documentation as well.

Absolutely. I agree with that, and I’ve said so, though not as well as you did. I wouldn't want the world to be without them. There are people who say that the difference be­tween Blue Note and Prestige is rehearsal. That's just glib. That's bullshit. That's not even a fair way to put it. It resulted in a lot of my favorite recordings. You know, those Miles [Davis] Prestige things ... they can't hurt those things. It's really one of the most gratifying things I've done, the fact that people can hear those. It's really good.

When you were in the control booth listen­ing to the sessions, were you ever aware that those sides would end up as classics?

 Well, you can't see into the future. I had no way of knowing that. But I knew every ses­sion was important, particularly the Blue Note stuff. The Blue Note sessions seemed more important at the time because the procedure was more demanding. But in ret­rospect, the Prestige recordings of Miles Davis, the Red Garland with Philly Joe Jones, the Jackie McLean and Art Taylor, the early Coltrane—sessions like that—turned out to be equally if not more important. I always felt the activity we were engaged in was more significant than the politics of the time, to the extent that everything else that was happening was unimportant. And I still feel that way. I treat every session ... every session is important to me.

Have you done any classical or pop?

There was a long period of time parallel to those years when I was working for Vox, a classical company. I would get tapes from all over Europe and master those tapes for release in this country. I did that for 10 years or more. So I had three things going: Blue Note, Prestige, and Vox. Each of them was very active. And I did some classical recordings: Classical artists, solo piano recordings, a couple of quartets.

How about pop?

A lot of that popular stuff came with Creed Taylor later in the '70s. He was oriented more toward trying to commercialize jazz music. You're familiar with his CTI label? That's another world altogether. That's when we started to be conscious of the charts. I love the sound of strings, particu­larly the way Creed Taylor handled them with Don Sebesky. And I love an exciting brass sound too. Creed is a genius as far as combining these things that we're talk­ing about. I'm not at all isolated in the world of a five-piece be-bop band. As a matter of fact, sonically, this other thing is more rewarding.

What are your feelings on digital versus analog?

The linear storage of digital information is idealized. It can be perfect. It can never be perfect in analog because you cannot repro­duce the varying voltages through the dif­ferent translations from one medium to an­other. You go from sound to a microphone to a stylus cutting a groove. Then you have to play that back from another stylus wig­gling in a groove, and then translate it back to voltage.

The biggest distorter is the LP it­self. I've made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes go­ing simultaneously, and I'm glad to see the LP go. As far as I'm concerned, good rid­dance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don't like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engi­neer. That's why some digital recordings sound terrible, and I'm not denying that they do, but don't blame the medium.

A lot of people argue that digital is a cold­er, sterile sound. Where do you think that comes from?

Where does it come from? The engineers. You've noticed they've attributed the sound to the medium. They say digital is cold, so they've given it an attribute, but linear digi­tal has no attributes. It's just a medium for storage. It's what you do with it. A lot of this has to do with the writing in consumer magazines. They've got to talk about some­thing.

What should be discussed is the way CDs are being marketed as 20-bit CDs, but there is no such thing as a 20-bit CD. Every CD sold to the public is a 16-bit CD. You can record 20-bit and it is better than 16-bit, but it has to be reduced to 16-bit before you can get it onto the CD. History is re­peating itself. 

It reminds me of when they marketed mono recordings as "re-mastered in stereo." All they did was put the highs on one side, put the lows on the other, and add a lot of reverb to make it believable. Then they'd sell it as a stereo record.

Do you feel today’s jazz musicians stack up to the players of the 1950s and '60s, Blue Note's heyday?

Well, there are a lot of great kids around. You know, technically they're great. I feel they're suffering from a disadvantage of not being able to play in the kind of environ­ment that existed then. You don't want me to make a broad statement saying, "Gee whiz, it was better 20 years ago than it is now." First of all, I don't believe that. I don't even think of it that way.

Do you see yourself as a technician and an artist?

Absolutely. When you mention the techni­cal end, the first thing I think of is making sure all the tools are working right. The artistic part is what you do with them. The artistic part involves everything in this place. There's nothing here that isn't here for an artistic reason. That applies to the studio. The whole environment is created to be artistic. It's my studio and it's been this way for a long, long time, and people like it. It's even mellowed through the years, and people are aware of that. Musicians are sen­sitive to that. Someone came in here only yesterday and said: ‘If the walls could only repeat what has happened here ….’”