By Matthew Somoroff | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Horace Silver’s death on June 18 brought well-deserved tributes from the press: the New York Times’ obituary noted that “[m]any of his tunes became staples of the jazz repertoire” and the Washington Post rightly called him “a primary developer in the 1950s and 1960s of the style of jazz known as hard bop.”
Silver grew up working-class (and black) in (overwhelmingly white) Norwalk, CT. In the late 1940s, he began performing professionally around Connecticut. By 1951, he’d moved to New York to continue his work as a musician. With drummer Art Blakey, Silver formed the Jazz Messengers during the early 1950s. This alliance yielded two of the most enduring and noteworthy jazz ensembles of the latter half of the twentieth century: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet.
In playing a crucial role in the development of hard-bop, Silver also helped to establish the classic Blue Note Records sound of the 1950s and 1960s: small-ensemble recordings (typically quintets or sextets) with an emphasis on original compositions bearing a bluesy tinge. The musical directions that Silver and Blakey carved out during the early 50s laid the groundwork for recordings by Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, and others. Iconic Blue Note albums like Byrd’s A New Perspective, Morgan’s The Sidewinder, or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ owe their respective sounds to Silver.
The shadow of Silver’s compositional style looms large over Herbie Hancock’s debut album, Takin’ Off. The many hard-bop tunes Wayne Shorter contributed to Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (and hence to the jazz repertory) are indebted to Silver’s innovations in jazz composition. The popular soul jazz recordings of the 1960s by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and the Ramsey Lewis Trio are rooted in Silver tunes like “The Preacher” and “Señor Blues.”
Silver’s importance as a bandleader cannot be overlooked. Like those of his former bandmate Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, Silver’s bands provided invaluable exposure for up-and-coming talent in the jazz world. A partial list of notable musicians whom Silver mentored must include trumpeters Blue Mitchell, Woody Shaw, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, and Dave Douglas; saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Bennie Maupin, and Michael Brecker, and Bob Berg; drummers Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Roger Humphries, and Billy Cobham.
By the mid-1960s, Silver had developed a rich inventory of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices to produce new compositions. In other words, once he’d formed a personalized musical language, Silver began to repeat himself, recycling old materials in new tunes. Other composers who also used this approach to producing new music include Johann Sebastian Bach, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Cole Porter. Like them, Silver’s inventory of musical devices was large enough to permit a multitude of new permutations.
What precisely were Silver’s contributions to jazz composition and style? One of his greatest achievements as a composer was synthetic. In various configurations, Silver mixed the harmonic complexity of bebop, melodic phrasing from the blues and gospel, and rhythmic feels from R&B and Latin music. He was capable of writing ornate melodic lines akin to Charlie Parker’s classic bebop tunes, but more often he wrote clipped, strong, riff-based melodies and wedded them to unexpected chord progressions.
Silver also pioneered different approaches to arrangement and ensemble texture within his chosen format of the two-horn/rhythm section quintet. His compositions rarely consisted merely of a melody over changes. Instead, he might create call-response phrases between himself and his horn players (e.g., “Filthy McNasty”), or use stop-time rhythmic figures to generate musical tension (e.g., “Break City”).
I asked my friend Aaron J. Johnson, a professional trombonist and music scholar who just earned his PhD from Columbia, for some thoughts on Horace Silver. He replied, “His music led the move to hard bop and hard bop supercharged the connections between jazz and the black community. Hard bop is the broad genre that kept jazz in inner city bars and clubs all over black America and kept jazz on black radio deep into the 1960s.” Johnson also had the following insight into Silver’s musical approach: “If you listen to the solos on ‘Cape Verdean Blues’ starting with Silver’s own on piano, they adhere to the form of alternating two-bar solo phrases with two-bar phrases of the band playing the groove. This is Silver's answer to organizing the combination of improvisation and composition, and how to get folks to solo on the tune, not on the changes (as Ornette Coleman later put it.)”
In 1970, Silver experienced a newfound interest in spiritualism and metaphysics. He began to compose and record music that expressed these convictions. The resulting trilogy of albums, titled The United States of Mind, was grudgingly released by Blue Note. After leaving Blue Note in 1980, he founded his own record label, Silveto, with the hope of releasing music that diverged from the quintet-based hard bop for which he’d become famous.
Silver’s spiritually-minded music never found much of an audience. His existing base of listeners wanted more of the Horace Silver who wrote and performed soulful instrumental jazz. The Silver of The United States of Mind and the Silveto recordings has been effectively written out of the dominant jazz history narrative.
During the late 1990s, Silver fell back into critical favor with two albums he recorded for the resurrected Impulse! label. His next recording, made for Verve in 1999, is titled Jazz…Has…a Sense of Humor. It could be read as a cheery observation or as Silver’s admonition to the jazz world.
Horace Silver’s final work turned out to be his 2006 autobiography, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty. It is written in a voice resembling his musical style: direct, unpretentious, by turns idealistic and sassy. Silver expresses gratitude at his musical gifts and successful career, but also gives voice to lingering frustrations over the incomprehension that has met his post-1970, spiritual music.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that for a while during my late teens and early twenties, I thought I was above Horace Silver. That came only after I’d had a love affair with his music. I remember first getting into Horace Silver during high school, when I was about 16. My father and I had become obsessed with Sonny Rollins’ 1957 recording of “Misterioso,” which featured both Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver on piano. Obviously, Rollins and Monk were both amazing on the track, but we were also turned on by the stark simplicity and deep groove of Silver’s solo. We dug deeply into Silver’s classic Blue Note albums Blowing the Blues Away, Horace-Scope, Six Pieces of Silver and Song for My Father. And we couldn’t get enough of the catchy riffs and the grooves.
But by the time I was 19 or 20, I had grown weary of those records. I was expanding my musical horizons and had become too hip for Horace. The hummable melodies, the clever shifts in rhythmic feel, the stylized blooziness all began to sound like Silver was constantly winking and grinning at the listener, like a party guest who substitutes an insufferable schtick of one-liners for actual conversation.
In hindsight, I think I’d gotten swept up in the lowest-common-denominator popular conception of Horace Silver, the thumbnail sketch found in jazz history books that reduces him (and the hard bop school) to a producer of finger-snapping, good-time music. Even though I had Silver recordings to refer to, I had not really listened to them for quite a while. I’d forgotten the wry dissonances in tunes like “Kindred Spirits,” or “Nutville.” It had not occurred to me that some of Silver’s greatest compositions were his ballads, such as “Melancholy Mood” and “Peace.”
It’s now hard for me to discern the source of my discomfort with some of Silver’s tunes. Is it more that I hear some of his “funky” compositions as full of mannerisms? Or is it more the cheeky humor of some of the titles of his compositions, their insipid wordplay and offensive connotations (e.g., “Juicy Lucy” from Finger Poppin’, “Ah! So” from The Tokyo Blues, or “Calcutta Cutie” from Song for My Father)? But Silver’s occasional penchant for facile exoticism was hardly unique among jazz musicians – just think of the caricatured “redface" intros to the versions of “Cherokee” by both Bud Powell and the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet.
In preparing this remembrance, I’ve listened again, particularly to deeper cuts and to forgotten recordings like You Gotta Take a Little Love and The United States of Mind. I felt it was the least I could do to recognize someone who filled my imagination early in my musical life and whose music continues to provide nourishment and pleasure. I selected some favorites from Silver’s vast and accomplished catalogue of recordings.
“My One and Only Love” from The Stylings of Silver (1957)
I choose this recording as an appreciation of both Silver’s arranging abilities and his elegant understatement as a ballad player. Silver makes the unexpected move of taking the lead and playing the song’s melody himself, assigning the horns sustained harmonies and stop-time background figures. The result is that, during the melody statements, Silver achieves the textural breadth of a much larger ensemble within the quintet format. Check out Silver’s solo for a great example of his pianism: a style essentially coming out of Bud Powell, but more pared down and with a heavier blues element.
“Lonely Woman” from Song for My Father (1964)
This is one of my favorite examples of Silver’s pianism and definitely my favorite of his ballads. Listen to the protracted ending of the track: a poetic evocation of an exhausted and tedious loneliness. Incidentally, I’ve come to hear Pat Metheny’s choice to cover Silver’s “Lonely Woman” on his trio album Rejoicing as intensely symbolic. Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, the rhythm section of the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet, accompany Metheny on Rejoicing, which features three Coleman tunes. Metheny forgoes Coleman’s canonical “Lonely Woman” for an Ornette Coleman tribute album in all but name, instead choosing the other “Lonely Woman.”
“Acid, Pot or Pills” from The United States of Mind, Phase II: Total Response (1971)
The rhyme scheme of the lyrics might sound a bit square, but the groove is badass. This track comes from Silver’s United States of Mind project, three albums of original songs for which Silver also wrote the lyrics. These recordings feature Silver on the RMI electric piano (in his autobiography he states that he chose the less popular keyboard because he had tired of hearing everyone play the Fender Rhodes keyboard). The United States of Mind albums were critically and commercially unsuccessful, in large part because they fit neither the marketing categories of the music industry nor the expectations of the jazz press: the music had too much funk and soul to be jazz, but too much hard-bop to be soul or R&B; the lyrics were too plainly optimistic and spiritual for a jazz album (or perhaps for an album of the early 1970s). The albums were an eccentric mix of jazz, gospel, and late-60s hippie utopianism, and the jazz world didn’t want to hear this from Horace Silver. (See the Afterword to Silver’s autobiography for more on these albums.)
“Summer in Central Park” from In Pursuit of the 27th Man (1972)
The hornless instrumentation (vibes, piano, bass, drums) used for
this urbane jazz waltz is atypical for Silver. The harmonic style of the tune suggests that Silver had been absorbing some of the modal/post-bop experiments of younger composers like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, or Joe Henderson. And check out the fleet, hip lines Silver plays during his solo!
“Philley Millie” from Jazz … Has … a Sense of Humor (1999)
On his final recording date, Silver the composer, pianist, and bandleader grooves as exuberantly as ever. This mid-tempo swinger is classic Silver: a melody simple enough to be hummed upon first hearing, but joined to a chord progression with enough kinks to keep things interesting. Silver’s solo almost resembles Count Basie or mid-50s Miles in its pithy concision. The shout choruses the horns play in alternation with Silver’s soloing are also a favorite device of the composer.
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Matthew Somoroff is a writer and independent scholar living in Durham, NC, USA. He received his PhD in Music from Duke University.