THE SILVER MINE
This week I have invited my close friend and long time associate altoist PAUL ZEC to contribute a “guest” musing on the subject of one of his musical icons, pianist and composer HORACE SILVER. Here are Paul’s thoughts:
“Jazz people love their music so much that their favourite musicians often become indispensable to them, with their musical relationship taking on the character of a close friendship, whether or not they’ve even met, let alone played together. Perhaps this is most likely to occur in the context of small-group jazz conversations, where improvisation is the ‘name of the game’; and where musicians are sharing the same language.
Readers familiar with Spike Wells’s ‘Musings’ page will know that two of Spike’s favourites are the peerless American tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959), and the wonderful Scottish tenor player Bobby Wellins (1936-2016). Some weeks ago Spike did me the honour of inviting me to write for his website, and this I gladly do.
One of my favourite musicians is the American pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Horace Silver (1928-2014).
I love to recall my visit to Ronnie Scott’s in 1988 with my teenage daughter to hear the Horace Silver Quintet. Now that I’m well into my ‘anecdotage’, I’m unashamed to recollect going up to Horace at the bar in Ronnie’s and saying to him: “I’ve been listening to your records and loving your music for about 15 years. So I count myself as one of your best friends.” Horace not only accepted the unsolicited compliment graciously, but also bowed to my daughter and kissed her hand.
The hectic innovations of Bebop in the 1940s and ‘50s might, to some ears, have needed taming. Along came Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet. What they brought were a new emphasis on varied dynamics – of rhythm and emotional expression – and a spiritual dimension. These new emphases gave rise to new labels: ‘(Be)bop’ became ‘Hard Bop’. Silver (along with Blakey) was seen as a trailblazer of Hard Bop. He also became linked with ‘Soul Jazz’ in people’s minds.
I have a problem with the label ‘Hard Bop’ – though I’m in love with the music: most of Silver’s composed material is anything but “Hard” (if by ‘Hard’ is meant ‘difficult’ or ‘aggressive’). So much of his music is tender – even ‘sweet’ at times. There is wide agreement that, in Hard Bop, blues, gospel and (old-fashioned) r & b are combined with Bebop-based harmony and rhythm. And Silver’s playing style is caught well by Alyn Shipton (writing in 2001):“Clean, often humorous, right-hand lines combined with darker notes in near-perpetual left-hand rumble”.
To describe Hard Bop as exemplified by the Silver Quintet, I certainly need to accentuate melody as a hallmark of Silver’s compositions: so many of these are to my mind just beautiful melodies; in my more sentimental moments I find it difficult to avoid using the word “creamy” in talking about some of Horace’s compositions!
But that wouldn’t do justice to Silver the composer. The tremendous variety of his inventions - from the exciting Latin-based to the funky to the balladic to straight-ahead Bebop – make him a writer of masterpieces. Because he wrote mainly for a 5-piece band, it’s noteworthy that much of his work sounds as though it’s written for a larger unit. This reflects the world-class quality of the musicians who worked with him; also, the superb engineering of the ‘Blue Note’ label’s recorded sound as delivered during the 28 years that Horace spent working with ‘Blue Note’. But most of all there is the collective sound of the Silver Quintet: through all the personnel changes that the band experienced from the 50s to the 80s, there was always the Horace Silver Sound.
Before I end I’ll mention a few of the masterpieces. In so doing I want to pick out a particular feature of Silver’s style as a composer that gives me special pleasure and which calls to mind a facet of his composing, namely his habit of inserting a second theme, quite different from the initial thematic exposition, before the final rounding-up and conclusion of the work. This historical trait, often called the ‘Shout Chorus’, is to be found in the work of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others.
These are four Horace Silver recordings which contain that feature (the Shout Chorus) and do so to great effect.
1 Enchantment from ‘Six Pieces of Silver’
2 Metamorphosis from ‘The Stylings of Silver’
3 Me and my baby from “Horace-Scope”
4 The outlaw” from “Further explorations”
Now go and mine the Silver!”