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JazzTimes 10: Essential Horace Silver Recordings

Choice cuts from a hard-bop and soul-jazz giant

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.

5. “Song for My Father” (Song for My Father; Blue Note, 1965 [originally recorded October 26, 1964])

5. “Song for My Father” (<i>Song for My Father</i>; Blue Note, 1965 [originally recorded October 26, 1964])
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Was there ever a doubt? If you knew anything about Horace Silver before you read this list, you knew “Song for My Father”—if only because it’s the basis of Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” That opening ostinato is the most famous example of one of Silver’s favorite devices: bass lines played in unison by the upright and the piano. The rest of the tune, though, is just as iconic. The bandleader is in a moment of transition; half the eponymous album is by his aforementioned classic quintet, and the other—including “Song for My Father”—features a new one with trumpeter Carmell Jones and saxophonist Joe Henderson on the front line. Loaded with soul and Latin groove (another Silver favorite), it’s primarily a feature for the pianist himself, who lays down one of his best improvisations on record. But of course, how could a genius like JoeHen appear without signifying brilliantly too?

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10:

Horace Silver 1928-2014

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.