Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2014: Curtis Nowosad

Horace Silver (1928 – 2014): Retrospective

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Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver [b. 1928] was exposed to lots of different music from a very early age. His Portuguese father and American mother listened to Portuguese and Cape Verdean folk music, and at church he heard the gospel music his mother sang. Later, he listened to blues records from the 1930s and 19r0s at home, and in the clubs he heard Latin music. In time, these influences found their way into many of his compositions.

There are two important moments in Silver’s evolution as a musician. The first was as a teenager, when an older player gave him the “fake book,” a collection of sheet music of popular songs with the chord changes at the top of the page that musicians rely on when playing live. The book gave Silver a much stronger understanding of how to play music. The second was when he heard Groovin’ High by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It was the first bebop record Silver heard, and it helped him understand the level of playing that would be required to make it as a musician.

Silver was hugely influenced by the music of Bird, Dizzy, and others, but he remained concerned that they were taking the music down the path of musical snobbery to a place that few could understand. In his own compositions, Silver kept the bop feel but added melodies loaded with fun, gospel, and blues.

Silver’s music was an important force in jazz around the world. Of the many artists signed to the Blue Note label, he was one of the most valuable, and it was his successful sales that helped to solidify Blue Note as a commercial enterprise. Silver was an extremely prolific composer and one of the few jazz musicians to record albums of almost entirely original material. Many of those songs have become jazz standards.

Horace Silver Retrospective [Blue Note #95576] is a four-CD, forty-five-song box set that covers his time with Blue Note from 1952 to 1978. Disc one begins with Silver’s first release for the label, with his trio featuring Art Blakey on drums. Of particular note is “Opus De Funk,” a great blues tune that mixes elements of bebop, swing, and gospel. The disc also documents the work he did as a member of the Jazz Messengers between 1953 and 1955. Silver’s slinky blues, “Doodlin’” and “The Preacher,” with a gospel backbeat, are classics. Both the instrumental and vocal versions of the Latin-feeling “Señor Blues” are also included.

The second disc contains three songs from Silver’s 1959 classic album Blowin’ the Blues Away: the title song, the finger poppin’ “Sister Sadie,” and one of Silver’s prettiest melodies, “Peace.” From 1960 is the Latin-tinged “Nica’s Dream,” a tribute to the jazz patron Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. “Filthy McNasty” is a funky blues with a great beat that Silver wrote after seeing the 1940 W.C. Fields film, The Bank Dick, with the character of that name. Featured prominently on many of the recordings on this disc is trumpet player Blue Mitchell, who brought a great, soulful element to the Silver sound.

The first song on disc three picks upon the Silver’s father’s suggestion that he incorporate some of the Portuguese music he heard as a child. “Song for My Father” is Silver’s response. It features a beautiful tenor solo by sax player Joe Henderson. “The Cape Verdean Blues” was based on Portuguese folk music. The energetic, hard bop blues “Psychedelic Sally” features a blistering sax solo by Stanley Turrentine.

I should warn you that there are low points on discs three and four. The least impressive tracks are vocal sessions from the 1970s, when Silver started writing lyrics and using vocalists. As stylish a singer as Andy Bey is, nothing can dig him out of the song about organic food called “Old Mother Nature Calls.”

To date Retrospective is the only extensive compilation to include all of Silver’s celebrated songs. In his salad days, Horace Silver was one of the great jazz composers and created a body of work that is now part of the standard jazz repertoire. Retrospective is a fitting testament. Just ignore its drawbacks, as most of the songs included are essential to have.

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