Horace Silver: Siempre Horacio!

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Horace Silver, Gerald Wiggins and Benny Green at Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles in 2002. Photo Credit: Chuck Koton

i feel that Horace was profoundly committed to melodic beauty, clarity, economy, soul, groove and creative hipness. his music proves exactly what his priorities are, you can ‘drop the needle’ at any point on any Horace Silver record and find these qualities in bright detail. he even named one of his pieces (from the 1975 album ‘Silver ‘N Brass’) ‘The Sophisticated Hippie’, and when i asked the great trumpeter Woody Shaw what it was like for him working with Horace, Woody noted that ‘Horace was like a soulful intellectual’.

i think that sometimes when a Jazz player is steeped in the blues and prioritizes the groove and doesn’t hide it, they can become critically pigeon-holed as being simplistic or not forward-thinking composer-improvisors. and of course nothing could be further from the truth with Horace Silver’s playing and writing – he consistently has something exciting, vital, earthy and inimitably clever for the people, for the musicians, and for the intellectuals all at once. and he does this always with such unaffected joy and uniquely personal humor. amidst it all his voice permeates his staggering recorded legacy and conveys the honest presence of both a spiritual man and a clever punster in all musical moments. never is Horace’s mind and quick-wittedness on auto-pilot. never does he miss a chance to add some ‘grease’ at the right moment, or to ‘spank’ the bottom of the piano in the sassy way only he achieves, to always ‘spark’ the band in the true spirit of the founding central voices of Jazz.

Horace is one of the dedicated geniuses who has made Jazz great, his recorded music lives on to heal and illuminate us forever.

Horace’s piano playing is perfection to me – never ever a ‘bad’ or uninspired note, everything he touches with an all-knowing warmth that imparts the same kind of healing rays as sunshine. Horace is so passionate, so absolutely, perennially in love with music and living wholly in the present moment with everything he comps and every note and phrase he creates. Horace, along with a personal shortlist of Cedar Walton, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, is one of the kings of making hilarious and ingenious ‘quotes’ of sometimes very obscure and older, novelty songs or even radio show themes or commercials, and doing it in such a pure and honest and musically sound way that we love them for it! most ‘quoting’ comes off as redundant or even ‘corny’, yet ‘Bird’, ‘Newk’, Horace and Lord Walton are four Jazz masters who have shown the world a sophistication of humor that the rest of us can only marvel at and respect.

Horace is harmonically impeccable, yet in his autobiography ‘Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty’, he makes it quite apparent how deeply he looked up to Thelonious Monk in regard to harmony and total musicianship. historically, as Jazz pianist-composers one could say Horace came along after Tadd Dameron and Thelonious Monk and before folks like Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton.

along with his brilliant writing and arranging for trumpet-tenor saxophone quintets, his very individual sense of orchestration and his warm, dark employment of the middle-register of the piano created a sound and aesthetic upon which the Blue Note label of the 1950’s-’60’s conception was effectively built. Horace loves comping, and as he mentioned to Len Lyons in a published interview, in order to indeed become a great ‘comper’ (Jazz accompanist), one must truly take pleasure in hooking up the rest of the band, helping the rhythm section and the soloists get to ‘the thing’ as a team, not just be waiting their turn to play a solo!

when called upon to do so, i find it can be so difficult to name isolated favorite tracks. these days i find many young people asking to hear examples of some of the players who have inspired me. ‘i’ve heard you mention Sonny Clark. can you play me something of him?’ to a young person who’s never heard a particular one of the arteries of Jazz, my quandary then becomes: am i to recommend something athletic? or weird? something somehow sensational for sake of shock value? when an artist has the expansive emotional range of Horace Silver, it’s a tricky thing to endeavor to call attention to just one or two tunes. Horace is mostly known as a writer and leader of quintets. the thing is, his actual piano playing is incredible, as a piano player myself he is one of my personal favorites and pianistic heroes.

two of my favorite trio tracks of Horace are a swinger from 1959 with 20-year-old Louis Hayes on drums, called ‘The St. Vitus Dance’ from Horace’s Blue Note album ‘Blowin’ The Blues Away’, and also the slow ballad ‘Lonely Woman’ (by Horace, not the Ornette Coleman tune of the same title) from Horace’s 1963 Blue Note album ‘Song For My Father’.