Trane Tracks

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John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme, reissued in 2015 as a deluxe three-CD set, is one of many classic albums recorded by the late engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

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(The following article, “Trane Tracks,” was written by Thomas Staudter and published in the September 2014 issue of DownBeat.)

John Coltrane’s career—and the global appreciation of his artistry today—would have been very different without the contributions of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Several of the albums Van Gelder recorded with Trane, especially those with the saxophonist-composer’s “classic” quartet, stand among the greatest in the history of jazz. They also demonstrate the close connection between a soft-spoken, introverted artist and an audio wonk bent on perfectionism.

Beginning with the recordings he made for Prestige and Blue Note, Van Gelder first worked in the living room of his parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey, fitting in sessions while maintaining his day job as an optometrist.

A handful of jazz dates in 1953 encouraged the young recording engineer and assured the label bosses he worked for that the progenitors of hard-bop were in capable hands. The following year his workload increased significantly, as he handled the recording duties on more than 35 sessions for the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Horace Silver.

“During that time there were only three major record companies: RCA, Columbia and Decca,” Van Gelder recalled during a recent interview. “[Prestige founder] Bob Weinstock, a music-lover like myself, wanted to record albums that could compete sound-wise with the majors. I felt that now I had a mission: to allow small private labels to sound as good as the three big labels.” (As part of Prestige Records’ 65th anniversary celebration this year, Concord will release high-resolution digital reissues of 60 Rudy Van Gelder Remasters titles and hold a special event in the fall to salute the engineer on his 90th birthday.)

When Coltrane arrived as a member of Miles Davis’ quintet in November 1955 for a recording session, many hard-blowing saxophonists had already been flocking to Hackensack to cut records in Van Gelder’s living room, including Lou Donaldson, Phil Woods and Gene Ammons. “Rudy had a way of capturing horns the way they sounded,” said Michael Cuscuna, the reissue producer of numerous Van Gelder-engineered recordings. “He was committed to getting as close to the impact of a ‘live’ performance as possible in his studio—and he did it.”

Over the next two years, Coltrane would have many opportunities to appreciate Van Gelder’s meticulous nature, hard work and technical expertise. In 1956 alone, Coltrane was featured on a number of Prestige recordings cut in Hackensack: Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, Tadd Dameron’s Mating Call and the Tenor Conclave project with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, plus the famed Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’ titles with Davis.

Coltrane signed with Prestige in April 1957 and within the next few months recorded his debut, Coltrane, Blue Train (a one-off for Blue Note) and John Coltrane With The Red Garland Trio—all with Van Gelder.

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