Friday, July 18, 2008

"In Walked Horace" - Horace Silver

Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Put directly, I find the music of Horace Silver irresistible. When I listen to it, I feel happy, joyous and free.

I was recently reminded of this fact with the arrival of Horace’s autobiography.

Reading the book resulted in the parallel activity of getting out his many Blue Note recordings and listening to them again, but it also raised the question in my mind of what was it about his music that I found so appealing?

Horace’s music is usually associated with the Hard Bop style and, according to a number of noted writers on the subject, Horace is one of the originators. of “Hard Bop.” Some maintain that he is THE originator of Hard Bop.

So are the ingredients that constitute Hard Bop the reason why I like Horace’s music so much? If this could be the basis for my preference, what are these ingredients; what is Hard Bop?

For the author, Richard Cook, in Blue Note Records: The Biography [London: Secker & Warburg, 2001], the evolution of Horace’s music into what has come to be known as Hard Bop may not only have resulted in a new Jazz genre, it may have also saved Blue Note records itself from extinction.

To paraphrase Mr. Cook, after ten years of following a similar methodology, by the mid-1950s, the bebop scene had begun to atrophy – it’s ad hoc nature grew to seem like a very curse.

Although there were some more or less regular formations, the faces in the musical community were familiar but not working together in ways which let ensemble identities gel. As Art Blakey would later remember: ‘Guys then would throw together a band for one night and play standard bebop tunes, just stand there and jam. And people got tired of that. Everybody was just copying.’ [p. 72].

As a result, Blue Note was in such a perilous financial state that it was even entertaining offers to buy the label when, with apologies to J.J. Johnson – “In Walked Horace.”

Horace came to the label’s rescue through the record date on November 13, 1954 for which Horace created “… the blueprint for perhaps the greatest small group in post-war jazz.” [Cook, p. 72. Just to be clear, I think that what Mr. Cook is referring to as “greatest” are the many versions of the quintet that Horace has led over the years and not just this particular group]

For this date, Silver employed Hank Mobley [ts], and Doug Watkins [b], who were working with him at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, and added Kenny Dorham [tp] and Blakey [d].

In many ways, this was to become the seminal album that resulted in the birth of the Blue Note “Sound,” the start of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and start of the many versions of the Horace Silver Quintet [HSQ].
The music on this album seemed to transition be-bop into an earthier, more blues-gospel orbit that connected with audiences and forged the direction that this particular school of bop would take for years to come.

With one exception, all of the compositions on the LP were penned by Horace [among them The Preacher and Doodlin’] and Mr. Cook describes Silver’s music this way, a description that may offer a first clue as to why it is so appealing [paragraphing modified]:

“Each of them seems cut from the same cloth: rocking beats, nothing too quick but nothing that dawdled; sashaying minor melodies, voiced in clean unison by tenor and trumpet with riffing interjections from the piano; gospel and the blues seeming to soak into every eight-bar passage.

Compared to the careening tempos and linear charge of ‘true’ bebop, this music might have seemed almost too simple, a reduction rather than a development. But Silver’s group opened up possibilities in other ways.

His themes had a melodious side to them, which the slash-and-burn tactics of bop had little time for. It was listening music, but it opened the door to backbeats, a grooving motion which audiences tired of abstraction were ready to welcome.

In the new black popular music – typified by the kind of [rhythm and blues] output which Atlantic …. was making money from – bebop had no place. But [Horace’s] … blend of funky sophistications could take a seat at the table. [p.73].

The style of music didn’t have the name – “Hard Bop” – as yet, but the band had a name – 'The Jazz Messengers,' an identifiable sound, and even hung together for a while to play a number of gigs in and around New York City.
And while, The Preacher and Doodlin’ were to capture the popular fancy, my favorites on the album are the more hard-driving Room 608 and Stop Time, and the heavily blues oriented Creepin’ In and Hippy.

Frankly, after listening to the music on this album and the two subsequent live at the Café Bohemia that were recorded a year later in November, 1955, I continued to be puzzled by what is meant by the “hard” in “Hard Bop.” To my ears, the music is anything but “hard.” I always thought that the angular lines, convoluted harmonies, four-chord-changes-to-the-bar, take-no-prisoners tempi of the original bebop was a much “harder” sound than the blues and gospel inflected tunes and arrangements penned by Horace.

Or to repeat Mr. Cook’s characterization of the music: “…: rocking beats, nothing too quick but nothing that dawdled; sashaying minor melodies, voiced in clean unison by tenor and trumpet with riffing interjections from the piano; gospel and the blues seeming to soak into every eight-bar passage.” [Ibid.]

In his The History of Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997] Ted Gioia offers a perspective that is similar to that of Mr. Cook [and others] as to the key ingredients that made Hard Bop in general and Horace’s music in particular so unique, but he also goes on to identify other elements that contributed to its singularity and to its appeal [paragraphing modified]:

… ‘The Preacher’ [was] a funky blues piece infused with elements of gospel music. … The time was right for this return to the roots. Rhythm and blues and the gospel sounds of the sanctified church were starting to exert a powerful influence on American popular music. Singers as ostensibly different as Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles were drawing on these same traditions in pursuing their sharply contrasting sacred and secular agendas.
Over the next few years, rock and roll would incorporate many of these same ingredients into a brusque, clangorous style whose impact still reverberates. The jazz idiom also benefited from a return to these first principles of African American music – at least for a time.

Eventually these funky and soulful sounds would become stale clichés in the jazz world, but for a period in the 1950’s their simpler attitudes – grooving two steps, guttural back beats, insistent melody lines drenched with blues notes- offered a healthy alternative to the more cerebral and aggressive strands of modern jazz." [p. 316]

But it when Mr. Gioia moves a bit further into his analysis of Horace’s music that the real preferences that I have for Horace’s music begin to manifest themselves. While there is the “… ‘down-home’ approach exemplified by ‘The Preacher,’ Gioia comments that Horace “refuses to be limited by it,”… and goes on [paragraphing modified]:

Silver is often described as a key exponent of this funk-inflected style, yet his major contributions reveal, in fact, a refreshing diversity. These efforts include explorations of 6/8 rhythms (“Senor Blues”), Caribbean-Latin hybrids (“Song for My father”), medium tempo jaunts (“Silver Serenade”), free-spirited romps (“Nutville”), jazz waltzes (“Pretty Eyes”) and serene ballads (“Peace”).

The one linking factors in these works is not so much Silver’s funkiness, but rather the sharp focus of his musical vision. His sound is uncluttered. His melodies are succinct and memorable. The rhythms are propulsive without being overbearing. The obsession with virtuosity, so characteristic of bebop, is almost entirely absent and never missed. "[pp. 316-317].

That’s it in a nutshell: [1] melodies that are easy to remember and which you can sing, whistle or hum; [2] propulsive rhythms that you can snap your fingers to or pat your foot to [or both]; [3] a wide variety of different “settings” in which the music takes place including Latin beats, cookers, ballads; [4] music that is fun and enjoyable and played by musicians who are excellent but don’t take themselves too seriously.

Gene Seymour in his essay entitled Hard Bop, in Bill Kirchner [ed]., The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 200, pp. 373 – 388] points out that the liner notes to Horace’s Serenade to a Soul Sister [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 84277] includes “… the pianist’s guidelines to musical composition: a.) Melodic Beauty, b.) Meaningful Simplicity, c.) Harmonic beauty, d.) Rhythm, e.) Environmental, Heredity, Regional and Spiritual Influences.” [p. 382].

Seymour continues: “… others have inferred that … the fifth guideline is an elaborate definition of what came to be known as the ‘funky’ essence in Silver’s music given its suggestion of African-American strains of blues and gospel.” [p. 383].
As Horace explained to Kenny Mathieson in Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65 [Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2002]: “ Funky just means earthy, coming out of the blues and gospel thing, but it’s not a style, it’s a feel, an approach to playing. The funk element came from my love for black gospel music and the blues, a combination of the two.” [p. 41].

From 1956 with the release of Six Pieces of Silver [Blue Note CDP 7 81539 2] to Serenade to a Soul Sister in 1968, Horace would release fourteen Blue Note albums all reflecting a “… combination of funky, [gospel or] folk-inflected themes with sophisticated bop….” [Mathieson, p. 41].
Recorded on November 10, 1956, Six Pieces of Silver was Horace’s first album with his permanent group – the Horace Silver Quintet [HSQ] - which in this case consisted of Donald Byrd [tp], Hank Mobley [ts], Doug Watkins [b] and Louis Hayes [d]. With the exception of the ballad, “For Heaven’s Sake,” all of the tunes on the LP are Horace’s and, as Mathieson points out:
“… several distinctive signatures were already emerging including his liking for interpolating ensemble interludes between the solos, a trait heard here in the 8-bar interjections on both ‘Cool Eyes’ … and ‘Virgo.’
In addition, his penchant for unorthodox rhythmic alterations emerges on ‘Camouflage,’ the Latin-inflected ‘Enchantment,’ and the ambitious rhythmic experiments of the album’s best known track, ‘Senor Blues’. [Ibid.]

In the album’s original liner notes, Leonard feather described ‘Senor Blues’ this way:
“Senor Blues is, for the listener at least, the most exciting of the seven performances on these sides. Set in a minor key, with the horns voiced, it is in triple time, which Horace describes as 6/8, though I would be inclined to call it 12/8. The performance is full of tricky rhythmic and counter-rhythmic effects …. Both in its solos and in its ensemble approach, this is a striking example of the degree of originality to which a twelve-bar motif can be stretched.”

Intricate sounding, yet simple in construction: the amount of though that Horace puts into the structure of his compositions is certainly a main element in why his music is appealing to me and there is so much more of this quality in the tunes on the album – Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 56583 2 7] with Art Farmer [tp], Clifford Jordan [ts], Teddy Kotick [b[ and Louis Hayes [d].
This is not a recording with tunes based on running the changes to Cherokee or developing thematic points-of-departure on the chords sequence in I’ve Got Rhythm.

Or, as Richard Cook phrased it in The Biography of Blue Note Records: “All but one of the tunes are Silver originals – no simple blues derivations or melodies dumped on to standard chord changes.” [p. 119].

The opening track, The Outlaw, is vintage Horace with its twists and turns containing all sorts of surprises due to its unusual structural form. Like Ecaroh, another Silver original, it employs both 4/4 straight-ahead and Latin-inflected rhythmic passages, but The Outlaw does so within an asymmetric construction that employs two sections of thirteen [13] bars divided into seven [7] measures of straight-ahead 4/4 and six [6] of Latin rhythms, a ten [10] bar 4/4 section which acts as a bridge followed by a sixteen [16] bar Latin vamp [or Latin pedal] with a two [2] break that leads into the next solo.
It’s a masterpiece whose seemingly disparate parts generate a powerful “tension and release” effect that will leave you wanting to listen to this sprightly bit of musical magic over and over again.

Another of the album’s tracks is Moon Rays which to paraphrase, Leonard Feather description in his liner notes, “ingeniously uses the horns to employ a two-part harmony with pedal-point rhythm effects on the dominant” to create a moody and haunting ballad the breaks into a straight-ahead cooker at the solos.

Pyramid is characterized by sharp rhythmic punctuations, the intermittent use of Latin beats during the channels, a “quasi-Asiatic theme” while Safari is a straight-ahead, minor bop burner taken at a wicked tempo with Louis Hayes on drums once again demonstrating that his hands and feet are so fast that they complete phrases in an extended solo before his mind can finish conceiving of them!

Melancholy Mood which is built on 7 bar sections to form an unusual 28-bar AABA and yet it plays so beautifully, is an example of Horace taking something as basic as a ballad and crafting it different and unusual fashion.
Horace’s music has so much going on that the listener can return for repeated samplings and focus on it from completely different perspectives such that something new is heard each time. It’s a veritable, movable feast.

Brian Priestley has this to say about Horace’s uniqueness in Jazz the Rough Guide: The Essential Companion to Artists and Albums [London: Rough Guides Ltd., 1995] which he authored along with Ivan Carr and Digby Fairweather: [paragraphing modified]

“His composing ability is pre-eminently a stylistic consolidator, although one less academically inclined would be hard to find. In the mid-1950’s he created the ‘hard bop’ writing style virtually single-handed, by taking for granted that even a fairly ‘mainstream’ rhythm section would be heavily bop-influenced and contrasting this with simple swing-era phrasing for the front line instruments.
This joyously conservative approach stems directly from Horace’s piano style…. Even when a tune is voiced in two-part harmony [“Ecaroh” or “Silver Serenade”], it turns out to be just the two top notes of the full two-handed piano chords.

Whether soloing or backing, Horace is first and foremost a rhythm player…; like [Art] Blakey, his accompaniment can be almost overwhelming but its flowing compulsion cushions the soloists and forces them to say what they have to say.” [p. 588].

I think that Mr. Priestley has hit upon a point that has always fascinated me about Horace’s music and this is its musical forcefulness. Perhaps the “Hard” in Horace’s bop comes from the fact that he adds a drumming quality or fluid propulsive-ness to his music.

A major contributor to the insistent swing of Horace’s music is his choice of drummer, especially Louis Hayes.

As Bob Blumenthal points out in his insert notes the CD reissue of The Stylings of Silver [Blue Note CDP 7243 5 40034]:

“In the immediate instance a special nod should go to Louis Hayes, who was roughly three weeks short of his 20th birthday when … [the album] was recorded. Hayes was a mainstay of Silver’s quintet over the first three years of its existence, and provided a fluent drive that, for this listener’s money, none of his successor’s were able to match.

A drummer cannot just close … [their] eyes and swing on a Silver chart, where accents must be precisely struck and the music may move through several variations of jazz and Latin time within an 8-bar phrase. Hayes is on top of things all the way here, which is a testament to both how much the Silver quintet worked and the drummer’s own precocious skills.”

The No Smokin’ track on Stylings is an example of the percussive qualities to which that Mr. Blumenthal is referring and they are also in evidence in a more understated way on Soulville which has some ‘big band’ kicks and fills by Louis in its bridge.

The Back Beat and Soulville [which, in addition to its other attributes, has a beautifully constructed ‘shout chorus’ played in unison by Farmer, Mobley and Silver before the group returns to the tune’s blues line] are also a perfect examples of the following characterization of Horace’s music by Martin Williams in his The Jazz Tradition [New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1993]: [paraphrased]

“Silver’s groups sometimes give the impression of a cross between a bebop quintet and a little southwestern jump-blues band of the thirties or early forties and on several pieces, Silver has in effect done some of the best big band writing of the period.”

In their chapter on Horace from Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters [New York: William Morrow-A Quill Book, 1989], Len Lyons and Don Perlo offer this [paraphrased] appraisal of Horace’s music:

“Silver is primarily self-taught [in Jazz] and studied it by playing records on a wind-up machine at a slow speed, allowing him to figure out solos and chord changes by ear. … Silver credits Monk’s playing with showing him that openness and simplicity are options ….

Silver has even simplified Monk, evolving more visceral rhythms, less sophisticated melodies, and a more traditional rendering of the blues. In short, Silver cut the complexity out of bebop, making it more lyrical and funky.” [pp.466-467].

Nowhere is Lyons and Perlo assessment of Horace’s music more in evidence than on Finger Poppin’ [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 84008] which introduced the group’s new front line of Blue Mitchell [tp] and Junior Cook [ts] along with a new bassist, Eugene Taylor.

Finger Poppin’, Juicy Lucy, Swinging’ the Samba, and most especially Cookin’ at the Continental are not lines or melodies to be played and disposed of a soon as possible, they are ingeniously constructed thematic launching pads, each with a slightly different rhythmic “feel,” that soloists what to play “in” and not just “on.”

As has already been noted, the melodies that Horace writes are trouble-free andstraightforward, but the possibilities for improvising on them are endless – their uncomplicated nature seem to help the soloist weave new melodies on top of the original line. And then there’s everything else that’s going on: background riffs, interludes between solos, countermelodies in the bass line [sometimes played in unison with Horace left-hand in bass clef].

Steve Huey notes in his review of the album for “Silver always kept his harmonically sophisticated music firmly grounded in the emotional directness and effortless swing of the blues, and Finger Poppin’ is one of the greatest peaks of that approach. A big part of the reason is the chemistry between the group — it’s electrifying and tightly knit, with a palpable sense of discovery and excitement at how well the music is turning out.”

Another aspect of what I have always found engaging about Horace’s music comes from the musicians he used in his bands and Kenny Mathieson underscores this point in his review of Finger Poppin’ when he states:

“It is easy to hear even in the first outing why Silver liked the horn combination of Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook. They play his ensemble writing in disciplined fashion throughout, and also provide consistently attractive, imaginative and logically developed solos, but without ever overpowering his material, an important consideration for a musician as focused on the craft elements of composition as the pianist. While both are well capable of dealing with any technical challenges which arise in the music, neither depends on displays of overt virtuosity or emotional abandon in their playing, another quality which may well have endeared them to their leader. With a solid but responsive rhythm team picking up each nuance of Silver’s directions, this band already sounds like a well-seasoned unit, and that seemingly in-built empathy would survive the subsequent changes of drummer intact.” [Cookin’ pp. 41-42].

In August and September, 1959, the Blue Mitchell/Junior Cook version of the HSQ was to record one more album together – Blowin’ the Blues Away [Blue Note CDP 7 46526 2] which would include the formative title track that the soloists bobbing and weaving over its blues changes; Peace, one of Horace’s more beautiful ballads based around a ten bar composition and Sister Sadie, another of Horace’s gospel-inflected tunes in the manor of Juicy Lucy that cleverly evokes a blues feeling while using a 32-bar AABA form. So much thought goes into everything that Horace does on these recordings. As Mathieson comments about Sister Sadie:

“… [its] instantly catchy theme would be enough for many musicians [but] as usual, … the pianist is not content to state the theme and launch the band into a series of solos. He sounds a series of carefully thought out accompaniment figures behind Mitchell’s succinct solo and again under the first chorus of Cook’s. In the A sections of the saxophonist’s second chorus, Silver and Mitchell play a series of powerful Basie-style rifts behind Cook’s exuberant explorations. After Silver’s own two choruses, the ensemble plays a new theme on the section of the tune, and then another [related to the earlier background riff] in the next chorus, before finally returning to the original theme to close the tune. Each of these developments, while straightforward in themselves, add considerable variety and interest to a simple theme and a conventional structure.” [Ibid, p. 46].

As pointed out earlier, Horace puts so much thought into all of these charts that there seems to be a never-ending series of focal points to continue to surprise and delight the listener – happy, joyous and free – indeed!
On the subject of the albums that Horace made for Blue Note and the men who made them with him, once again, here are some insightful comments from Richard Cook, but this time in conjunction with Brian Morton as taken from The Penguin Guide to CD: Sixth Edition [London: The Penguin Group, 2002, p. 1343]:

“It’s hard to pick the best of the [Blue Note albums by the HSQ] since Silver’s consistency is unarguable: each album yields one or two themes that haunt the mind, each usually has a particularly pretty ballad, and they all lay back on a deep pile of solid riffs and workmanlike solos. Silver’s own are strong enough, but he was good at choosing sidemen who weren’t so … [full of character] that the band would overbalance: [Junior] Cook, [Blue] Mitchell, [Hank] Mobley, Art [Farmer], [Clifford] Jordan, Woody [Shaw], [Joe] Henderson, and [James] Spaulding are all typical [HSQ] horns….” [p. 1383].
Perhaps the best way to conclude this exploration into Silver’s “buried treasured” is by turning to his own words as a way of summarizing what makes his music so singular.
These excerpts are drawn from Ben Sidran’s Talking Jazz: An Oral History [New York: Da Capo Press, 1995].

Ben: You also developed some techniques I think that are still used today, such as the way you used interludes to set up the solos and the melody and the way you used themes that really set your writing aside from a lot of the blowing dates that were going on in the ‘50s.
Horace: Well, I was trying to do something a little bit different I guess, You know, to make our band sound uncommon. ‘Cause most of the groups, they came in, they played the head and soloed and played the head on out and that was it, you know? Whereas I thought to color it up a little bit and make the whole presentation more uplifting and desirable for people to listen to. You know, with an introduction and a few little interludes here and there. Maybe a shout chorus or a tag ending or whatever, you know. Embellish upon it a little bit. Not overarrange, but you know, just something to make it a little more interesting, and more unique. More original.
Ben: The simplicity of what you were doing back then, I think, made possible. Everything, down to the last three notes of a song like “Blowin’ The Blues Away,” was definitive and simple and right on it. There no question about what you were doing or what your musical intentions were.
Horace. Well, you know, I think it takes a composer a while to learn simplicity. Some of the early things that I’ve written were too notey, you know. I wrote a lot of bebop lines in the early days that had a lot of notes to it, you know, that were difficult to play and not much space for the horns to catch their breath in between phrases and all that stuff. But as I got a little older and learned a little more, I began to realize that all that wasn’t necessary, you know. You can cut out all of those notes and it can still be great, and might even be greater, because more people can understand it. And it can still be profound, you know, and beautiful. Beautiful profound harmonies and beautiful profound simple melody … simplicity is very difficult you, know.

Now, in my opinion, you gotta be very careful with simplicity because, if you’re not careful, you can write a simple melody that can be very trite and non-meaningful, you know. But it’s most difficult to write a simple melody that is profound and deep. That is a very difficult thing to do. Find some beautiful harmonies that are not too complex, but yet beautiful, different, moving in different directions, interesting, you know, stimulating to the mind, for a player. But not too complex, so that it makes it hard to play.

And a simple melody that’s not complex to play either, but yet it’s beautiful and has some depth and some beauty and some meaning to it you, know.
Because if you’re not careful, when you’re trying to be simple, it can be very corny or trite, you know. That’s the hard part about simplicity. But once you get it, you really got something.” [pp.143-45]

Well, there you are – the reasons why I like Horace Silver’s music so much as summarized by Horace, himself. He makes it all sound so easy; would that it were.

I am also indebted to all of the authors referenced in this article for their assistance with my quest to explain why I find Horace Silver’s music so appealing and satisfying.

While preparing this piece I was reminded once again of the inherent contradiction in trying to describe music in words.

Obviously, to find what may be appealing to you in Horace’s music, all you need do is listen to it!

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