Track of the Day: 'Hackensack' by Thelonious Monk

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If sidemen and backing musicians are the unsung heroes of music, and producers are the even-less sung heroes, where does that leave the engineers?

Few of the men and women who arrange microphones, sit in the booths of recording studios, twist knobs, and commit music to tape (or digital files) are known to the public. But Rudy Van Gelder’s skill and talent were such that his name rightly rose to the top echelons of jazz. Van Gelder died at 91 on Thursday, Nate Chinen reported.

Van Gelder, a trained optometrist, began recording jazz sessions at his parents’ house in Hackensack, New Jersey, as early as the 1940s. Like many of the greatest studio geniuses, RVG (as he was often known) was basically a self-taught amateur, who gradually figured out how to make what were probably the best recordings in the world. By the 1950s he was recording top-flight professionals. Sessions recorded at the house included Miles Davis’ Walkin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’, as well as Bags’ Groove; the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Django; Sonny Rollins’s Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus; and Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else.

In 1959, he moved his studio to a new, purpose-built space in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Around the same time, he quit his day job.

From 1959 through the 1960s, RVG recorded an astonishing string of records. Many of those were for the Blue Note label, with which he was closely associated, alongside the producers Albert Lion and Francis Wolff. (Beginning in 1999, he began working on RVG Editions, a string of remastered versions of vintage Blue Note sessions he had recorded, producing canonical versions for the digital age to match the canonical versions he’d put into wax decades earlier.) But he also recorded for other labels, especially smaller ones line Prestige, and it was at Englewood Cliffs that John Coltrane cut A Love Supreme for Impulse. In the 1970s, Van Gelder recorded a series of albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI label. Many of those CTI releases have, to be generous, not stood the test of time as music, though some of them groove fiercely. Nonetheless, they sound fantastic.

Van Gelder was widely (though by no means universally) liked by musicians. He was known for being particularly warm and lifelike—a robust sound that makes the listener feel like he or she is in a three-dimensional room with the musicians, in contrast to the sound of many contemporary records, which could be brittle, flat, and trebly. An RVG record offered much of the excitement of being at a live show at a time when live recordings were generally bad. One tribute to Van Gelder was Thelonious Monk’s tune “Hackensack,” named for the original home studio and recorded there in 1954. To get a sense of the power of RVG’s sound, compare the version above to the one Monk recorded nearly a decade later with Columbia.

With Van Gelder’s passing, jazz has lost an important figure from its golden age, and one whose name perhaps appeared on more records than any of the giants of the genre—albeit in the fine print on the back of the sleeve. Though listeners may be unlikely to realize it, we shall not hear his like again.

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