Rudy Van Gelder: Genius or just lucky?

Like any serious jazz fan, I have a lot of music produced by the "legendary" Rudy Van Gelder in that studio in Hackensack NJ during the fifties and sixties. I've always thought they were kind of thin sounding and sometimes even tinny, with poor bass and flat dynamics. As I go deeper into the era I keep finding recordings – both live and from other studios - that really blow away a lot of the RVG studio stuff. For example, yesterday I was listening to Monk's 'Live at the Blackhawk' , which is a great natural recording with the instruments sounding both lifelike and life-size, with good bass. It was recorded in 1960 live in a club, and sounds - to my ears - 100% better than the contemporary studio recordings (Monk's Music, Brilliant Corners, etc). The live recording also doesn't have any of the studio baffling that was so fashionable on early stereo recordings, that makes instruments sound isolated from each other rather than part of a unified soundstage (And RVG is certainly not the only engineer guilty of this. Has anyone really ever heard a drum kit where every piece was stacked vertically?). Although this is a Riverside release it was not engineered by RVG. It seems that there was some very good recording technology at the time that was not being utilized in RVG's studio, or the acoustics were funny - I don't know.

This isn't, of course, limited to Monk recordings. That just happens to be the example I was listening to yesterday. I find this to be the case with most RVG dates.

You can't ignore the importance of the RVG records simply because of who and what he recorded, and he recorded the best, but I've seen a lot of articles offering accolades for his productions that just seem overblown. I think a lot of those records- great music or not - sound really mediocre.

Any other opinions out there?
I mostly agree. I've got tons of RVG remasters but many of the best recordings are not from RVG. To me the saxophone (trane etc.) tends to be too " in your face" and piano is typicaly under miked. OTOH cymbals and Miles muted trumpet is usually pretty good. As a whole they do seem a little flat and thin. For comparison check out Miles' "Someday my prince will come" where it's all outstanding. I think RVG does a good job but his great success is being in the right place at the right time with fantastic musicians. JMHO - Jim
All I can say is that when Blue Note started selling their catalog on Cd any RVG first generation recording in digital lacked the spit and hiss of early CD's. I prefer to believe it was because most of the recordings lacked vocals which early in this medium was where digital gave up the ghost. In classical music the violins is where digital gave up the ghost in early cd recordings.For the life of me I enjoy the RVG remasters but then the Riverside recording are quite, good some are even outstanding.
I read somewhere that some of the early recordings were made in his NY apartment...shared it with his mother and/or grandmother, if I recall correctly. I very much prefer the LP version of the RVG recordings. What a stable of artists he was fortunate enough to witness/record. The overall quality is inconsistent, but it may have been due to circumstances beyond his direct control.

There was a great article on a recording engineer by the name of Roy DuNann in Stereophool a few years back. Check out a the quality of a few of his recordings...Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, Sonny Rollins-Way Out West, Sonny Rollins and The Contemporary Leaders. The article/interview is an interesting read. I would like to hear a "DuNann" version of many of my favorite Blue Note recordings...
Grimace: Simply an outstanding thread! The RVG remasters bug me no end for their lean sometimes tinny quality. But, if your're not a vinyl person and seriously into jazz, your're stuck with buying many of the classic performances only available on Blue Note via Van Gelder. I resist doing this sometimes because I dislike the recordings so much. There is no escaping though if you want to have many of these classics on disc. I recently recieved "Ready for Freddie" by Freddie Hubbard as a gift. It's a Blue Note RVG and not too bad of a recording, actually better than some of the RVG's I have. Example, the excellent "Go" by Dexter Gordon on RVG is another lean recording that was disappointing. I'm still trying to find classic well done jazz remasters. Columbia/Sony is doing an excellent job with Miles.
Foster 9, you may want to take a look at some of the XRCD discs...if you haven't already. The selection is somewhat limited, but the sound quality is much better than the OEM disc. The remasters utilizing the K2 process, which is a lower grade version of the XRCD process I believe, is a cut above also.

Of course, in most cases, even the $10 OJC vinyl equals/betters a CD. ;)
A lot of Rudy Van Gelder's work was not recorded in a NY apartment, but in the living room of his parent's suburban home in Hackensack, NJ. RVG's actual studio facility, where later things were recorded is/was located in Englewood, NJ

Given the fact that you had the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonius Monk, etc. camped out in your parent's living room, playing their instruments while you drag your mics, recorder, cables in there explains a lot of what people are hearing. While they may not be tapes that demonstrate what the audiophile community likes in a "reference recording", I like to think that they are more of a snapshot of some of the greatest musical minds of jazz, that happened to be captured for later listening.

His parents' NJ home, even more interesting!

You are correct, the work he performed is what has turned out to be important stuff. Unfortunately, lovers of the Blue Note artists can't always have it all...good music AND primo sound quality.
I listen to a lot of RVG on vinyl...originals...not reissues. They sound great...really great. He did a lot of stuff that is not that expensive to buy still.
Everybody has their opinion but this one reminds of the thread where someone said that Miles wasn't really that great!!!
Hedgehog: Yeah I've been to the XRCD website. I use it to as a guide to try to find the discs elsewhere. The XRCD website has higher prices then you can find elsewhere but I always look for XRCD or the 20bit logo when I shop online.
If you Google "Rudy Van Gelder" you'll find a lot of interesting stuff. As far as I know, he's still with us (born 1924). Trivia note: When he recorded classical stuff for Vox he was sometimes billed as Dr. Rudolf Van Gelder -- the "Dr." came from his status as an optometrist! Dave
Great thread. I too wondered about all the praise for Van Gelder, until I recently heard an original Blue Note mono pressing of Horace Silver's Blowin' the Blues Away. I went out and bought a few, and IMHO I now can say that original vinyl pressings of RVG recordings on Blue Note in mono up to the mid-60's, and on Impulse (either stereo or mono - both great, but different) are right up there with the best recordings I have ever heard. RVG is also pretty good on Prestige but less good on Riverside (i.e., Monk) and other labels. By comparison, all RVG digital reissues are inferior and even the vinyl reissues are marginal at best. Why the difference by label? I suspect it was because RVG gave his producers what they wanted - and Alfred Lion of Blue Note and Bob Thiele at Impulse were the best of the best.
I'm with Khaki8 on the point that the original vinyl is representative of fine musical reproduction and engineering.

It's shoddy repressing or digitization that has degraded the sound quality IMHO. Go back to the original mono vinyl and give credit were it is do, I think you’ll see what I mean.

I'll keep mine and please contact me on anyone looking to rid themselves of those old, dusty, nasty, (low)-Fi Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note Jazz Mono vinyls from 1953 to 1967 in EX+ shape. I will pay you fairly for them so you can go on your way and buy more CD's and wildly priced cables and equipment to try and make music sound better than this. Ha, ha, ha. Especially, anyone with a copy Of “See you at the Fair” by Ben Webster on Mono Impulse… in fact, write me about the Impulse pressings too!

Happy Listening!
Great responses folks. Khaki, I'm not suggesting that the music isn't great. To my mind it's the most amazing catalogue of 20th century recording there is. However, what's available sure doesn't sound like they put a lot of effort into making it sound it's best, especially if - as stated above - the original vinyl pressings are that much better in sound quality. But I suppose there is a certain amount of milking the catalogue for $$$ going on.

Funny thing: I was listening to another album recorded live at the Blackhawk last night, Shelly Manne and His Men Vol. 1, which was recorded within a year or so of the aforementioned Monk album. The imaging was a little different with the kit across the center and everyone else off to the sides, but it has the same big, warm, smooth detailed sound. I wonder - and if anyone knows I'd be interested to hear - if the Blackhawk had its own house recording system and what was in it?
You really have to judge an RVG recording or mastering by the original vinyl, not by CD reissues of 50 year old master tapes.

IMO - what distinguishes much of RVG's work is not an "audiophile" wow factor, and by no means a sonic accuracy - but rather a palpable sense of "you are there" presence and a good slice of the emotional atmosphere in the recording room. And lets not forget that the Engineer and Producer are also responsible for creating an environment that allows the musicians to feel comfortable and creative, bringing out their best, which was no small part of capturing small ensemble jazz.

Like anyone, some of his stuff is better than others, but in general, there is a quality to it that is not necessarily unique, but very enjoyable.

Most people are not aware that RVG also worked on a number of the very early VOX and Musical Heritage Society/Amphion Classical chamber recordings, which also have that same sense of presence. Often he's not even credited, the only way to know is to look at the dead wax for an "RVG" stamp.

One example of this - which is well worth looking out for is MHS510 - Handel Select Harmony, Telemann Society Orchestra. In the first 10 seconds after dropping the needle, you know this is a special recording. Not that easy to find but should cost you less than $5, since it is after all, an MHS.
According to Google, there is currently one for sale here:

Great Thread. I too believe RVG is over rated as a recording engineer. Piano's rarely sound complete and as big an instrument as it really is, soloist don't seem to stand up to the forefront, dynamics are restricted and worst of all the bass is bloated and never seems tight. Hey, it's not terrible and the music is outstanding and I'm grateful the work was done, but, the rep is over-hyped.
i have the 24 bit Art Blakey "Moanin" remaster on cd and Im pretty happy with it...its not state of the art...but it sounds way better than it should...and great music to boot..
I also have some xrcds of Miles that sound extremely good as well...
the rvg stuff is legendary for the performances(which are brilliant), not the sound.

I agree, the performances are amazing; I'm glad someone recorded all that great jazz! Some of the sessions have very good sound, some don't.
The early (1956-1959) RGV recordings sound the best. They are far from perfect or spatially natural, but really charming for fans of the music. The tonality of the instruments was better then, and the sound was full and lively. The piano always sounds like a small upright that is just barely in tune and burried in the corner, but I've grown to like its spooky sound. The cymbals, especially on some of the earlier Blue Notes, sound too "white" and splashy (e.g. Blue Train), but still exciting and engaging. The Prestige recordings usually sounded the best with less of the "white" cymbal sound.

As you get into the 1960s and RGV moved out of his parents house and into a studio, the recordings get thinner, brighter and generally worse sounding. This is not just true of RGV's recordings, but the jazz industry as a whole. Early transistors and changing recording techniques played a part in this.