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Record Review

Charming Persuasion: A Stroll With Horace Silver

Stuart Mitchner

“Music hath charms to soothe the” — you know the rest, which is more often than not misquoted, with “savage beast” bumping “savage breast.” The passage comes from William Congreve’s 1697 play The Mourning Bride and goes on to say that music can soften rocks, bend knotted oaks, and give motion to inanimate things that “as with living Souls have been inform’d/By magick numbers and persuasive sound.”

Thinking of music the persuader, the healer, the motive force of inspiration and consolation, I remember that when I was living in New York in the days before the Beatles, my favorite tonic for the big city blues, my pick-up of choice, was something bright and lively by Horace Silver, who will turn 80 this coming September 2.

Reading of “magick numbers and persuasive sound” also reminds me that Norman Mailer once claimed to have gone into a Sun Ra performance with a vicious head cold and come out cured. The music had cleared his sinuses. Then there was the time when I was submerged in a book-rejection gloom so deep even Silver couldn’t cure it, so I wandered into a revival of A Star is Born and came out revived after experiencing for the first time the greatness of Judy Garland. You never know what music’s going to do to rational people, for instance a normally less than fastidious friend of mine who, after seeing Ornette Coleman in person for the first time, became Mr. Clean. Upon returning to his apartment at two in the morning, he took the place apart, dusted and scrubbed every inch of it, picked up every stray thread, and then put it all back together again.

Around the same time, after seeing Silver at the Jazz Gallery, the same friend and I found ourselves hyper-energized, walking all the way to Times Square, riffing back and forth to the master’s measure in perfect little Horace Silver word-clusters.

Attacking the Blues

Having listened for the first time in years to the relentless, hellbent title track from Silver’s 1959 album Blowin’ the Blues Away, I understand how he might have sent me and my friend racing and riffing all those blocks to the north of St. Mark’s Place in a happy stupor. There’s a driving force in Horace Silver that isn’t always sufficiently covered in reference books and guides to jazz where he’s invariably typed in terms of hard bop, funk, soul jazz, and so forth. While Paula Donohue’s vaguely Jelly-Roll-Mortonish rendition of him on the cover of Blowin’ the Blues Away is true to life — she’s caught the hunched, bent-shouldered, antic ambience of the man — his playing on the title track is something else again; he drives the group like a man possessed. In fact, he’s doing what the title promises, chasing the blues, dogging it, driving it like a demon. From the opening chorus, he’s on the attack and never lets up, almost leaving drummer Louis Hayes and bassist Gene Taylor in the dust. As for the men up front, Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor, it’s easy to envision them galloping brilliantly but frantically ahead of him like a team of horses. “Attack” is the word; it’s naked force as style, which is where the “hard” in hard bop comes from. Silver’s compositions in this form have the ringing, clarion quality of a reveille, or a call to arms. But what makes him one of the most lovable musicians of his time is not only the play of his musical mind, his wit, his outrageousness, but the wonders he can work with relatively calm and contemplative compositions like (never mind the title) this album’s ballads, “St. Vitus Dance” and, especially, “Melancholy Mood,” in which he creates the mood and then simply, beautifully strolls out of it and goes for a walk in the park. The effect is a jauntier version of what happens in certain Schubert songs, where the theme may be death and disintegration but the piano music soldiers on like the old harper making his way through the world.

With Horace Silver, you can always picture the New Orleans spit-in-death’s-eye spirit of the funeral anthem, “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” In Silver’s compositions the downbeat and the upbeat come together, and it may be that where they meet is where terms like “downhome” and “funk” come into play. It’s in the revival meeting call-and-response feel of “Sister Sadie,” maybe the most purely Silveresque track on Blowin’ the Blues Away and one that brings to mind, again, the word so often associated with his music. Interviewed by Kenny Mathieson for his book Cookin’, Silver describes “funky” as “earthy,” as “not a style but a feel, an approach to playing” that comes out of his love for black gospel music and the blues: “It’s really just a natural evolution from the way I am.” He then goes on to mention his roots in Cape Verde, his father (the subject of one of his best-known compositions, “Song for My Father”), and his taste for, among others, Latin rhythms, Bossa Nova, classical, and show music.

With Rollins

Some of Horace Silver’s most memorable playing is on a Blue Note session led by Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins Volume 2 where he makes the most of the visitor’s role, riding in like the Lone Ranger, saying his piece, and galloping off into the sunset (“Who was that masked man?”). From what I can tell, the only other time he shared a record with Rollins was on a 1954 Miles Davis date (Bags Groove) that included some catchy, funky Rollins originals with an unmistakable touch of Silver in the styling.

On Volume 2, which was recorded in April 1957, the solos Silver takes would be show-stealers, except that the show includes jazz titans such as Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Thelonius Monk, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey. Even so, this master of stealthy moves and seductive riffs charms you to a standstill with his endlessly inventive right hand, getting into your head and staying there so that you walk away whistling his lines. Another composer could find material for a whole album of “originals” just by copping the tunes embedded in Silver solos like the ones in “Wail March,” “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” and “Poor Butterfly.” Then of course there’s the moment in “Misterioso” when you hear the changing of the keyboard guards, as Monk ends his solo with a five-note prelude to a blast by J.J. Johnson’s trombone and a visitation by Silver, a most subtle entrance, because though Johnson is blowing brilliant trombone, Silver’s sly knock-on-the-door comping is like a little movie in sound, a piece of pure cinema verité, in which you can almost see him sliding into place at the piano as Monk steps aside to do his little shuffling dance. Open the door to Silver’s knocking and let him in and it’s like sharing a stroll while he renders a hymn to funk, one of his most charming performances, and he does it all in a little over a minute.

City of Jazz

Late last month I was in jazz heaven, otherwise known as the Montreal Jazz Festival, a city within a city, a carnival of music with 376 free outdoor shows on a dozen different stages. Although Horace Silver couldn’t be there (online reports about his health mention Alzheimer’s), he as much as any other living musician represents the spirit of the music Montreal celebrated between June 26 and July 6, not jazz alone, but funk, blues, R & B, country, soul, gospel, folk, rock, even pop.

You can see Horace Silver on YouTube taking a long solo on one of his signature compositions, “Senor Blues.” He’s 31, at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, and the way his right hand seems to be both hammering and fanning the keys occasionally evokes the playful pyrotechnics of Chico Marx clenching the fist like a pistol, forefinger pointing at the target and shooting, nailing it down. If he were molding a ballad, he’d be prowling and purring, like a cat kneading something soft, digging into a cushion, ruminating with both paws. Billy Collins does a playful take on the Silver posture in his poem, “Piano Lessons,” where he sketches himself as a child practicing his scales (“the familiar anthems of childhood”), “slumped over” in his bathrobe, “disheveled,/like a white Horace Silver.” In fact, poet and player have wit and style in common, but when the player gets his mind around a ballad, he’s on another level. Chances are that Billy Collins would love to be able to do in words what Silver does in “Melancholy Mood” when he simply turns his back on the somber plotline of the melody and goes for a walk.

To see how close Collins comes, check out jazz-flavored poems like “Night Club” and “Questions About Angels.”

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