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.
A concept album about Japan! (Other song titles include “Too Much Sake,” “Sayonara Blues,” and “Ah! So.”) Will Japanese influences change the Silver sound? Not even a little bit. “Tokyo Blues” is the only piece on the record that makes any overt reference to that country’s music in its main theme, and all that does is drive home how much Japanese musical traditions have in common with the blues. (Incidentally, “The Tokyo Blues” is not in fact a blues.) This time it’s Cook whose solo is the killer, a lyrical slow burn that Mitchell builds on but can’t quite top. Silver’s is also resplendent in its use of the theme and various ad-lib-on-Nippon rhythmic and harmonic elements. Those, however, are a deceptively small ingredient; this music is Horace Silver from stem to stern.