A few weeks ago I was looking for something to listen to, searching out – as I often do -- a mood, a tone. I picked out Horace Silver’s Re-entry, a compilation of live dates from 1965-66. As with many of Silver’s CDs, Re-entry was pure toe-tapping fun. The joyful tunes stuck with me for days afterwards. So I felt an immediate sadness when I read about Silver’s death last week because his music -- especially “Cape Verdean Blues” -- was still very much alive in me. I’m sure the sadness was heightened by the knowledge that most of the jazz figures I grew up with and loved are gone now and I’ll never get to see them again.
As part of the Blue Note “stable,” Horace Silver, along with artists like Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Miles, Monk, Freddie Hubbard, and Booker Ervin, produced endless numbers of great albums during the hard-bop era of the Fifties and early Sixties. Jazz had a cultural cache then that it doesn’t have now: jazz musicians would play on TV, their images would grace the covers of TIME and NEWSWEEK. Jazz was a signifier during that time-- authentic or not -- for being cool or hip. These artists made music that was relatively accessible (funky beats and melodies galore), identifiable and yet full of playful invention: this primarily rhythmic music grew out of gospel and R & B as well as post World-War II bop traditions and the “Blue Note Sound” was characterized by a capacity to swing and by artists who were very accomplished – a few self-taught – on their respective instruments.
Horace Silver was a special case: first of all he was an innovative composer, creating a stew of Latin and African rhythms to add to that thumpy gospel, bluesy sound. He perfected the jazz quintet (led by tenor and trumpet players), a trend that had became popular with Blakey when Silver played in his band in the early Fifties. For a decade or more Silver’s recordings were especially well-loved: when he played at the Half-Note or the Village Gate you’d often see lines around the corner, because folks who knew his recordings wanted to see him live. A half dozen times I was among these fans, sometimes lucky enough to get in and listen.
Silver had a distinctive style, a recipe, as it were. Generally the songs began by establishing a rhythm with a strong two or three beat bass line. Then the piano might come in briefly to state the theme and the horns would join in to play the head (either in harmony or in unison), which sounded to me something like a waterfall, the notes cascading in a downward progression, or a roller coaster, down and then up. Then Silver would solo: usually a series of block chords with the left hand and while he approached melody with the right hand (mostly using one or two fingers). He played modest and relatively brief solos while letting his horn players carry the weight of improvisation. His solos’ substantial pleasures came from rhythm, the piano as a percussive instrument. Though an ingenuous composer, his own solos were rarely especially inventive, they just had a recognizable sound: a great beat and an infectious melody.
So Silver had a distinctive style, a signature sound: the pleasure of that signature was like welcoming a familiar voice, a member of the family. The danger of a style of course is calcification, resulting in a dulling of the listener’s senses. We all know poets with distinctive styles who wrote the same poems over and over again until we stopped listening: repetition made the work predictable. I wouldn’t say that he sought out commercial success (though it’s never been easy for jazz musicians to make a living so many artists of the ear hoped for a “hit” like Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”): time just seemed to pass him by. I associate his wonderful music with the world before the civil rights movement and Viet Nam. Before all the black rage and innovation that came from the likes of Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. Jazz became more challenging: in the shift to “free jazz” melody and rhythm no longer seemed to suffice: it reflected neither evolving musical nor minority experience. To advance the art and to reflect the artist in the world it seemed like one needed a huge capacity for improvisation and the kind of roughness, rage and darkness you might hear in the percussive piano playing of a Cecil Taylor or an Albert Ayler. He became aware of the rift: On a ’68 record cover for “Serenade to a Soul Sister,” he’s quoted as saying that he didn't believe in allowing "politics, hatred, or anger" into his music. One might suggest Silver came from a more innocent time, but the Fifties were by no means innocent. Retrospectively, the Fifties and early Sixties reflected a relatively comfortable and joyful period for jazz; it was a time when musicians digested Parker and Gillespie and extended their discoveries. Of course the British Invasion arrived then too: the Beatles and the Stones’ in many ways displaced jazz as a popular music. And now we live in an world that rarely welcomes difficulty; serious jazz artists mostly go to Europe and the Far East to play their music. But in the years before the revolutionary change, esp. in Horace Silver’s case, you could virtually dance to the music.
Re-Entry was for me probably the last really successful adventurous date of Silver’s band. Oh Silver continued to compose, occasionally often for larger bands, sometimes with strings, sometimes suites in the Ellington mode, even occasionally evoking the earlier funky style, but none of the dates that followed had for me the vitality of Silver’s wonderful decade plus of successful recordings, from 1954 to 66.
As with many live dates Re-Entry cuts stretch out and I associated the album with the kind of impulsive risk-taking that many studio recordings lack. But listening to the album again after Silver’s death, I can also hear restlessness in the horn solos: Joe Henderson’s solos -- as they were whenever he played with Silver – were fresh and inventive, but by this time he’d also listened to and absorbed some Coltrane. Two years away from his own Black Narcissus, he was already moving on, and when Silver plays after him the music takes a turn to the conventional: his solos seem static, a little too familiar. Woody Shaw, just finding his own way, was also moving away from the hard-bop sounds of early LeeMorgan and Clifford Brown (great trumpet players who also provided a model for the second trumpet player on Re-entry, the highly underrated Carmell Jones). The cuts on Re-entry represent for me the apex of Silver’s accomplishment: we hear developed versions of so many of his great upbeat songs (like “Song for My Father,” “Cape Verdean Blues,””Senor Blues””Sister Sadie,” “Filthy McNasty” and “The African Queen” that still give us pleasure (I only wish they’d played “Nica’s Dream,” one of my all-time favorite Silver tunes). These songs have all been covered by any numbers of musicians since that time, so Silver’s music will certainly live on. But this album also suggests the end of an era: ultimately the most imaginative solos belong to Henderson.
Finally I’ll never forget one beautiful Silver ballad, “Peace,” though I’m thinking now of how it was heartbreakingly played by Chico Freeman. It’s a great tribute song, a wish, a longing, an acknowledgment of bereavement. It sums up for me the loss I feel in his absence. He captured a time in jazz, and it’s hard to think of anyone funkier that Horace Silver. My toes are still tapping.
Ira Sadoff is the author of seven collections of poetry, including most recently True Faith (BOA EDITIONS,2012), and Barter, and Grazing (U. of Illinois), a novel, O. Henry prize-winning short stories, and The Ira Sadoff Reader (a collection of stories, poems, and essays about contemporary poetry). This fall Sadoff's Palm Reading In Winter will be reissued as part of the Carnegie-Mellon Classics Series. He teaches at Colby College and the MFA program at Drew University. Find out more about Ira Sadoff here.