The sound that Horace Silver pioneered in the ’50s and ’60s—for a while, all but synonymous with the sound of Blue Note Records—is for many people still the very definition of jazz. Raised in Connecticut and breaking through as a sideman for tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, Silver seems at first to be surrounded by “white bread” clichés. Yet nobody did more than the pianist, composer, and bandleader to ensure that jazz remained a distinctly African American idiom. Silver throttled bebop’s sense of swing up to 10 and its quotients of blues, gospel, and “the Spanish tinge” up to about 14. In the process he helped give birth to an idiom called “hard bop,” and had no small part in the subsequent development of soul jazz. His compositions “The Preacher,” “Doodlin’,” “Nica’s Dream,” and “Song for My Father” all became beloved standards.
An underappreciated aspect of his artistry, though, was Silver’s ability to make any tune, from any tradition, and even those traditions themselves, sound like Horace Silver. He put his indelible stamp on everything he touched … not least the very core of jazz. Here are 10 of his most important efforts.
That magical jazz year of 1959 found Silver debuting the definitive version of his quintet: Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Junior Cook on tenor sax, Gene Taylor on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums. From its title to its structure, “Juicy Lucy” reads almost like a soul-driven caricature of some of the tamer, lighter jazz that was happening in the ’50s. (George Shearing, Bent Fabric, are your ears burning?) This bop is so hard that it almost seems confrontational. It isn’t, of course, just shot through with swing and the blues. Silver takes the first solo—and if his fire isn’t the brightest (that would be Mitchell, who follows him), don’t be fooled into thinking it doesn’t burn the hottest.