Tippin’ the Scales

Most musicians don’t look much different on the bandstand than at ease. In the throes of creation, their cheeks may be distended or flushed and their eyes squeezed or closed, but they don’t undergo a complete transformation. Horace Silver is not most musicians. Look at the photos: When he isn’t playing, he smiles a dimpled smile or gazes with boyish serenity—Dr. Jekyll at your service. But in action, the bottled imp is uncorked as his spine snaps taut as a bow; his shoulders rise, the better to leverage his arms; his neatly combed hair flies forward with Cab Calloway defiance; and his eyes intensify into obsidian points of concentration. This is no Hyde, however: His ecstasy is as tempered as it is catching. He plays few notes, but makes you feel them all.

Come September, Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver—pianist, composer, lyricist, godfather of hard-bop, spiritualist, memoirist and phrasemaker who originated the name Jazz Messengers and established funk as a musical term—will celebrate his 80th birthday. No need to wait until then to celebrate. Silver hasn’t recorded in a decade, yet he has a new album. Blue Note, the label that documented his greatest years and now has as much luck trolling the Library of Congress as jazz clubs, has come up with another forgotten blast: Silver’s Live at Newport ’58. Having found a tape in the LOC and remembering that George Avakian recorded that year’s NJF for Columbia Records, Blue Note producer Michael Cuscuna went to Columbia’s vaults and found a three-track master. Had they released it half a century ago, it would already be in your collection.

Silver’s music never goes out of date or catalog. But his low profile in recent years and the mixed response to the didactic projects he recorded in the 1970s and ’80s (The United States of Mind, Guides to Growing Up) have reduced his recognition among younger fans. They may even be surprised to hear the Voice of America’s voice of God, Willis Conover, introduce him to the Newport audience as a peer of Ellington and Monk. Well, why not? Like them, Silver wrote tunes that were instantly adapted by singers and school ensembles—tunes that were nonetheless constructed so ingeniously that they kept his soloists on red alert, as inspired by the melodies, harmonies, meters and forms as by Silver’s adrenalin-pumping accompaniment.

Silver co-founded the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey in 1953. They made a few live recordings (including A Night in Birdland, with Clifford Brown) that codified a new urban jazz that modified bebop complexity with the blunt directness of blues and gospel-inspired melodies and backbeats or—as Silver called them—“finger-popping” rhythms. During their three-year partnership, Silver composed several of the tunes that incarnated the hard-bop aesthetic. Born and raised in Connecticut, he had soaked up a far-ranging assortment of musical influences: Cape Verdean folk music learned from his immigrant father, tenor saxophone studied with a church organist, blues, boogie-woogie, big bands (he idolized Jimmie Lunceford) and especially bop. At 21, he was discovered in Hartford by Stan Getz, who took him on tour and into recording studios.

He was soon in demand, working with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and appearing with Miles Davis on the benchmark 1954 Walkin’ sessions that helped turn the tide from cool to hard. Beyond his ability to filter bop through gospel, R&B and folksong structures, Silver demonstrated an uncanny ability to compose catchy melodies that sounded familiar and new at the same time. One of his early pieces, “Opus de Funk” (1953), a play on Getz’s “Opus de Bop” (1946), popularized a word on which he practically had a patent before James Brown and George Clinton came along. The word funk is derived from 19th-century slang for spoiled tobacco, and before Silver it had mostly unpleasant associations—as Jelly Roll Morton sang, “It’s nasty, it’s horrible, take it awaaaay.” Several Silver tunes of varying degrees of funkiness were adapted by pop and soul performers: “The Preacher,” “Doodlin’,” “Senor Blues,” “Peace,” “Song for My Father” and others.

Live at Newport is notable on a few counts. Incredibly, it seems to be the only live Silver performance released (at least legally), other than 1961’s Doin’ the Thing, recorded at the Village Gate. The opening track, “Tippin’,” has been out for years on a Swedish label, but the three other tracks, which are better, have been buried. It offers a rare chance to hear trumpet player Louis Smith, who had a brief Blue Note association before he left the travails of the road for a career in education. His bravura chops (phrasing against the beat, double-tonguing) and appealing sound might have established him as an heir to Clifford Brown. The other players are tenor saxophonist Junior Cook, who, after warming up his pitch, is in outstanding form, bassist Gene Taylor, and the ever-alert drummer Louis Hayes, whose slashing cymbals detonate rests and turnbacks.

The four pieces are a lesson in Silverismo. “Tippin’” is a headlong theme: rolling eighth notes that pause at the release for parallel riffs of descending thirds. After Cook and Smith play four choruses each, Silver burrows in for eight, dropping hints along the way of “High Society,” “Shortnin’ Bread” and a bugle call. Then things get more serious. Silver had recorded “The Outlaw” early in 1958, but in that performance you can practically hear the players sweating out the format, one of Silver’s most treacherous. It has an ABABCD form in which the A and C sections are in straight-four while the B and D sections have a Latin beat. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that A is seven bars, B six, C 10, and D is a 16-bar adlib followed by a two-bar written break. What a difference a few months make, especially for Hayes, who shapes the grid so decisively that the musicians glide through their solos.

“Senor Blues” was a hit in its day, released as a single and covered by several singers (with lyrics by Silver); the first version I ever heard was by the rock and roll singer Dee Clark. Which doesn’t mean it’s remotely conventional. Written in six flats, it opens with a mild dissonance and encompasses two Latin rhythms in the course of its 24-bar blues-driven main theme and the 16-bar rave-up interlude; for good measure, it ends with an additional 16-bar coda—Silver isn’t the sort of guy who just fades out. His extended solo on this track, beginning with a spiky tremolo, is the high point of the set, and one of his best on records. “Cool Eyes” is 32 bars and each eight-bar segment is different, producing a surprisingly evenhanded gambol complete with diminished chords, significant rests, suspended time and a two-note breath-catching riff. When it was over, the audience didn’t want the band to stop. Unlike the Newport crowd, we can hit replay.

Originally published in April 2008

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