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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
I’d already written last month’s ‘Wilt’ when I heard the news that one of my favourite musicians had passed away, aged 85. So this month I really must pay a belated tribute to pianist and composer Horace Silver.
It’s not always easy to pin down, in a few words, what makes a particular artist special. As a musician I know how hard it can be to just be Pretty Good, let alone a genius; so my sympathy is always with the musicians, rather than with the critics who find it so easy to dismiss someone’s work of a lifetime on the grounds that it doesn’t represent some kind of milestone in history. So many people work hard for years and produce great work, without ever quite managing to be perceived as ‘important’. In the critic’s view, it always helps if you can be identified as the originator, or at least as one of the prime movers, of a distinct genre or subgenre. Thus Horace Silver will be remembered not so much because he produced so many great compositions or played so many great piano solos, but because he was probably the most obvious architect of the jazz subgenre known as Hard Bop.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, we have to go back to the mid 1940s, to the end of the Swing Era and the advent of a new, edgier, more complex form of jazz called Bebop. A lot of people didn’t ‘get’ Bebop at the time and, for that matter, still don’t, which is a shame, but there it is. I don’t really understand how anyone could fail to appreciate the genius of Charlie Parker, but I don’t lose sleep over it, any more than I get mad at people who, for instance, don’t share my appreciation of Single Malt Scotch.
It’s undeniable, though, that in the world of jazz at least, nothing was ever going to be the same, and by the late 1950s the jazz scene was actually pretty fascinating, because it was splitting into several factions, each trying to work out its own answers to the perennial question: now what? You could, like John Coltrane, take the harmonic complexity of Bop to its ultimate extreme, and/or play as many notes as possible. You could, like Miles Davis, make music based on simple scales (modes) instead of complex chord changes, and/or play as few notes as possible. Or you could, like Ornette Coleman, throw even that away and venture into the uncharted territory of free improvisation.
What Silver did - along with kindred spirits like Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, and Cannonball Adderley - was to start with Bebop and then make it earthier and funkier, connecting it more urgently to the Blues, to Rhythm-and-Blues, to Gospel, and to what was already being called Soul music. Silver was a pioneer of Soul Jazz. Any time you hear something that seems to combine a jazz flavour with a soul-funk flavour, you’re hearing the Silver influence. And if some of those funky piano licks sound familiar, remember that he did them first.
Silver’s piano style is totally distinctive. It’s percussive and intensely rhythmic. It’s not flashy or complicated but it’s ferociously concentrated – every note counts. This is not to say that his music is devoid of lyricism; he wrote some lovely ballads and performed them with great feeling, but with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it directness quite different to the poetic introspection of, say, Bill Evans. Silver was an extrovert and his music is hugely positive, full of life and love and fun. Come to think of it, he was something of a welcome anomaly at a time when so many jazz musicians were turning angry, cynical, or self-destructive.
THE HORACE SILVER QUINTET: Finger Poppin’
Though some of Silver’s earlier recordings are great, I think this 1959 album is the one on which he put it all together. It’s a satisfying piece of work from start to finish, and features probably his most classic band, with the great trumpet and tenor team of Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook, and the great bass and drums team of Gene Taylor and Louis Hayes. There’s an early example of Silver’s latin leanings in Swingin’ The Samba, but mostly - whether at a sassy mid-tempo in Juicy Lucy or a furious one in Cookin’ At The Continental - he’s just swinging like hell.
THE HORACE SILVER QUINTET: Blowin’ The Blues Away
So what does this guy do after making his best album yet? He takes the same band back into the studio a mere seven months later and makes one just as good if not better. This one has a blistering up-tempo title track; one of his most beautiful ballads, Peace; and one of the defining anthems of Hard Bop, Sister Sadie.
I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Horace lately, and it’s hard to know where to go next or where to stop. In the 60s Silver got funkier and more eclectic; the Brazilian-influenced Song For My Father, from 1964, was his biggest hit. It’s a fine album, and Steely Dan famously stole the bass riff of the title track for their own hit Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. The Jody Grind, from 1966, is another great one. In the late 60s, though, something happened. Silver went from being a pretty cool-looking guy to something out of a R. Crumb cartoon, with a beard and a kaftan, and he started writing songs like Love Vibrations, How Much Does Matter Really Matter, and Old Mother Nature Calls.
I would willingly fight a duel with anyone who cast aspersions on Silver’s gifts as a composer and pianist. If we got around to Silver the lyricist, though, I’d have to politely excuse myself and slip out through a side door. I always assumed he’d dropped Acid, but in fact (if his autobiography Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty is to be believed) he was never interested in drugs. While the late 60s/early 70s was for some people all about getting stoned, and for others all about getting laid, it seems, for Silver, to have actually been about Love and Peace.
Still, that fits in with his innately positive and generous spirit, and that spirit is scattered throughout his later work. In the 1990s he made something of a comeback with a handful of albums for Impulse and Columbia. There are moments which hark back to his Blue Note heyday, and if they don’t seem quite as fresh or surprising, well, what do you expect? Don’t you know hard it is to just be Pretty Good?! He’s still Horace Silver . . .and you’re not!
Too many of Silver’s peers died sad and early deaths, and sometimes you can’t help feeling that they just weren’t meant to be around for very long. Horace, though, seemed like someone who was meant to live forever. As far as I’m concerned, he will.