When a musical hero of towering influence dies, the urge is to go straight to the tape: recordings, footage, a captured moment that stands in for the unwieldy fullness of a life.
This commemorative twitch – wearily familiar in our year of losses, from David Bowie to Prince to, just last week, the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson – is especially well suited to the memory of Rudy Van Gelder, whose legend was shaped within the confines of his recording studio. Mr. Van Gelder, who died on Thursday at 91, was the most revered recording engineer in jazz – the man behind the curtain on thousands of albums and the chief architect of the storied “Blue Note sound.” He shaped the way we hear the music and the way we want it to be heard.
So it’s natural, now, to look for some trace of Mr. Van Gelder in the brilliant recordings he made, either at his first home studio in Hackensack, N.J., or at his second, in nearby Englewood Cliffs. It’s natural, and it’s also maddening, because so much of what he did was intangible. You hear it, you feel it, but his signature was etched in invisible ink. What is it, exactly, that you’re listening for? Naturalism? Warmth? The sound of a room?
“Some musicians sounded more real on your recordings than they would in a club,” the pianist and writer Ben Sidran ventured in 1985 in a rare interview with Mr. Van Gelder, who seemed to agree. He replied, “A great photographer will really create his image, and not just capture a particular situation.”
In that light, here’s a small assortment of images – just a few personal favorites from Mr. Van Gelder’s oceanic body of work…