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.
Silver ended the 1970s—and his longstanding relationship with Blue Note Records—with the “Silver ’n” series, pairing the hard-bop giant with various types of instrumental ensembles. When it came to the percussion entry, Silver decided to pursue African musical traditions. Adding percussionists Babatunde Olatunji, Ladji Camara, and Omar Clay to his existing quintet, however, didn’t stop Silver from making an entirely characteristic album. (Even if it did consist of two three-movement suites.) “The Spirit of the Zulu,” which closes out side one’s “African Ascension” suite, is a 10-minute modal workout. It forms a Zen-like stasis (albeit one that drips with Silverian soul) that saxophonist Larry Schneider, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and Silver himself rip to pieces with their passionate soloing. Modal form does nothing to slow down Silver’s use of hip hard-bop harmonies, nor does the augmented percussion diminish bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster’s rabid swing.