On June 18, we lost another jazz legend, pianist Horace Silver. His passing has been widely reported in the jazz world, but no one else seems to have noticed. Perhaps he is not as much of a household name as Oscar Peterson, who was front and center about 80% of the time in his solo work. Silver’s music doesn’t have the abstract gravity of many of his peers like Charles Mingus and John Coltraine.
His arrangements always tended towards the ensemble, giving each player an equal balance between a unison of instruments as well as a solo (even in longer live versions which went up to 20 minutes). Yet Silver’s simple and sparse piano playing underpins each song, and with a few notes, he can transport the listener to another dimension.
Silver originally began as a saxophonist, which explains why all of his compositions have a very strong brass and wood section that almost acts as the rhythm and keeps everything on balance.
Along with Miles Davis and Stan Getz, I think Silver is truly one of the few instrumentalists who is an auteurist. Within the first few bars, each song is immediately recognizable it as a Silver composition. While Davis had very definitive stylistic changes that could be marked in periods, Silver had a consistent and timeless sound throughout his 50+ years in music.
It would be very wrong to classify Silver as a one-note pony as there are subtle but definitive variations from song to song, especially in regards to how the rhythm swings. Very few could keep up with his lightning-speed bop.
Scholars can analyze technique till they’re blue in the face. While intellectually we may be able to listen to some of the more cacophonous abstract jazz, we (at least I) sure as hell won’t want to listen to it over and over again like I would with Silver.
The fact that he didn’t indulge in the self-indulgent jazz of the 70s (like Davis) that everybody hates or the synthesizers that massacred a lot of 80s jazz is a huge feat and says loads about his taste and good sense. However in these decades, some of his recordings were bogged down by bland theatre-trained vocalists who add a banality that isn’t otherwise in the music (the exception being jazz singer Andy Bey whose rich baritone complements Silver’s funky electric piano). Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater’s album of Silver compositions is her best work and one of the best jazz vocal recordings in the last 20 years.
Although his later songs had titles like “Negative Patterns of the Sub-Conscious,” “African Ascension: The Gods Of The Yoruba,” as well as various movements (though each song stood alone), the music remained accessible. There was always a quirky whimsy to his music, and his early titles had great alliterative names like “Sanctimonious Sam,” “Filthy McNasty,” and “Nutville.” He even called his 1999 Verve album Jazz Has a Sense of Humor.
Jazz musicians are an especially notorious group for alcoholism and narcotics abuse. Though he looked a bit unhinged, as far as I can tell, Silver never seemed to have been addicted to either substance. Without sounding too Reefer Madness, this goes to show that one doesn’t need drugs to make groovy swinging music.
To celebrate the passing of one our finest musicians (and because I had a hard time just choosing 5), I will append the regular Take 5 formula in favor of 10 fantastic tracks. Get your groove on!
A Song for My Father
The Cape Verdian Blues
The Belly Dancer
The Sayonara Blues