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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).

During this period, Silver engaged some excellent players, including Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, and Clifford Jordan, but it wasn’t until late ’58 that he formed the first great band that was truly his. Silver’s quintet with Blue Mitchell, Junior Cook, Gene Taylor and a succession of drummers (Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, and Joe Harris), appear on 12 of the collection’s 45 tracks, which is only adequate in detailing their pivotal five-year role in Silver’s development. Not only does this extremely well-balanced unit usher in the soul jazz phase of Silver’s career with such cookers as “Sister Sadie” (annotator Zan Stewart perceptively connects Silver to Count Basie through this tune, and quotes Martin Williams’ observation that Silver fused bebop and Southwestern jump blues), it facilitated a broadening of Silver’s compositional range to include poignant balladry (the classic “Peace”) and Japanese-tinged harmonic explorations (“Sayonara Blues”). This quintet became the standard against which Silver’s subsequent units would be judged; while some were comparable-the ’64 quintet with Joe Henderson that immortalized “Song for My Father,” and, with the addition of a young Woody Shaw, recorded “The Cape Verdean Blues” in ’65-none surpassed the Mitchell-Cook edition’s ensemble cohesion and interpretative spark.

The years 1966-69 are represented by only four tracks in this collection, as Silver progressively relied on funky blowing vehicles like “The Jody Grind” and “Serenade to a Soul Sister” (the latter featured the unlikely front line of Stanley Turrentine and Charles Tolliver). It is intriguing that a period where Silver’s music was baldly formulaic immediately preceded his philosophical renewal, prompting a marked change in musical direction in 1970. Many of the elements Silver introduced on the ensuing The United States of Mind triptych of albums and the Silver ‘N’ series of discs have not stood up well against the years; the stilted lyrics prescribing spiritual well-being and a healthy diet will provoke a wince or two, as will Silver’s use of the RMI electric piano, which neutered his jabbing attack. Since such elements are prominent in many listeners’ memories of Silver’s ’70s recordings, it is surprising to see that this period accounts for more than a quarter of the collection’s running time, an allotment equal to that of the Mitchell-Cook quintet. Still, there are several solid compositions, ranging from “Barbara,” a crisp, winsome waltz, to the hard-hitting “Assimilation.” By this time, Silver’s quintet had become a graduate school for bright young talents; these tracks provide interesting early snapshots of present-day marquee players like Michael Brecker and Tom Harrell.

The Horace Silver Retrospective is a recommended dose of Silver’s patented healin’ feelin’. Its release not only reconfirms his considerable role in the evolution of post-war jazz, but also draws the century to a close with a much needed ‘amen.’