Live Recording

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While the vast majority of recordings in Rudy Van Gelder’s discography are studio recordings, he also managed to record his fair share of classic live albums. Rudy had always been inspired by the sound of live music, and he wanted his recordings, studio and remote alike, to communicate the excitement and energy of a live performance (Schaffer, 2010). It will thus come as no surprise that one of the first Van Gelder recordings to really grab the music industry’s attention was a live recording.

On February 21, 1954, a group originally dubbed “The Blue Note All-Stars”—Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, and Curly Russell—gathered at the Birdland jazz club on Broadway near West 52nd Street in Manhattan to record a live album. Little did anyone know at the time that the night would go down in history for kickstarting the “hard bop” movement in jazz. Live recordings were not common at the time (Cuscuna, 2004) but Blue Note producer Alfred Lion knew that magical things happened at night when it came to making records. Van Gelder was recruited to document the gig, and what the engineer proceeded to do on that cold winter night was encapsulate the group’s colossal sound and exuberance in a way that had never been done in a live environment.

Art Blakey, “Split Kick” | Recorded February 21, 1954 at Birdland NYC

The recordings, a set of three ten-inch LPs released in succession later that year (Cohen, 2010), were revolutionary not only from a musical standpoint but also for how exciting and present Rudy made the band sound. Even DownBeat magazine, not in the habit of commenting on the sound quality of the albums they reviewed, took notice in their writeup of the Birdland LP:

The set is very well recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, and is one of the better caught-in-a-club sessions on record. […] Notice how this Blue Note LP has much more presence than the other labels producing jazz reviewed in this issue. (Hentoff, 1954, p. 12)

After the smash success of the Birdland date, Van Gelder continued to focus on studio work but also managed to lay to tape a slew of acclaimed live albums, including Kenny Dorham’s Round About Midnight at the Café Bohemia (1956), Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957), Jimmy Smith’s Groovin’ at Smalls Paradise (1957), and John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard (1961).

Main photo: Art Blakey at the Cafe Bohemia, January 4, 1956 (Photo credit: Popsie Randolph / Michael Ochs Archive)

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