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Horace Silver: The Horace Silver Retrospective

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illustration of Horace Silver

In a world that puts first things first, Horace Silver’s music would have gotten the box set treatment a long time ago. Precious few musicians possess a sound as emblematic of successive stylistic movements as Silver’s was to hard bop and soul jazz. Fewer still advanced a sound integrating composition and improvisation as thoroughly as Silver, whose ear-grabbing tunes and lean, blues and gospel flavored piano perfectly complemented each other. Silver was foremost among those who successfully ran the jazz gauntlet in the ’50s and ’60s, churning out best-selling anthems while amassing a discography that endures on artistic merits. And, he is unique in having a single label-Blue Note-document his work for more than a quarter of a century. Yet, late is far better than never, as evidenced by Blue Note’s The Horace Silver Retrospective, a well-curated 4-disc survey of Silver’s prodigious output from 1952 to 1979.

Silver had a relatively slim resume when he cut his first Blue Notes as a leader in late ’52, filling a date vacated by Lou Donaldson; yet, trio tracks like “Safari” and “Ecorah” reveal him to be a literate, groove-mining pianist and a composer who combined pithy modernist themes and an earthy swing with a facility that approached that of Herbie Nichols. It is only with the ’54 quintet session with Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins-who became the original Jazz Messengers-that the gospel of hard bop according to Silver was articulated. On the mid-tempo blues “Doodlin’,” the tenets of Silver’s prodding, riff-based comping style crystallized, while on Silver’s first hit, “The Preacher,” his knack for mixing blues and gospel rhythms with a fleet swing feel hits its stride. Over the next four years, Silver honed his hard bop compositional craft, using appealing thematic materials and sly rhythmic shifts to obscure quirky structural features on tunes like “Cool Eyes” and “The Outlaw,” while continuing to rack up hits like “Senor Blues,” a sultry 6/8 theme released both in instrumental and vocal versions (the latter features Bill Henderson).

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