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Horace Silver (1928-2014)

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Horace Silver Horace Silver, a pianist who in 1952 and '53 pioneered two prominent jazz styles—funk and hard bop—and went on to lead one of the most exciting and successful hard bop quintets of the 1950s and early '60s before helping to develop jazz-boogaloo starting in the mid-'60s, died on June 18. He was 85.

Discovered by Stan Getz in Hartford, Conn., in 1950, Silver moved to New York in 1951and in October 1952 recorded The Horace Silver Trio, with bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Art Blakey. The game-changing album included Silver originals Horace-scope, Quicksilver, Ecaroh and Yeah—sophisticated compositions that combined the mischief of bop and the two-handed syncopation of gospel, resulting in what would become known as funk. The album redefined the jazz piano, which up until then was largely modeled on the dexterity and relentless attack of Bud Powell.

In 1953 Silver recorded on The Howard McGhee Sextet, Vol. 2, featuring trumpeter McGhee, alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Walter Bolden. The early hard-bop album featured two significant compositions by Gryce—Futurity and Shabozz, which opened with unison horn lines stating the songs' melodies before solos began.

These albums and others from the period were attempts by Blue Note's owner Alfred Lion to find a jazz alternative to rhythm & blues, which was fast becoming popular and eating into jazz's sales at record stores and in jukeboxes. Much of Silver's early success was owed to the duality of his technique, which enabled him to sound like two pianists playing the same keyboard. But he was also greatly helped by the rise of the 10-inch LP, which compelled record companies to take chances on unknown artists with interesting ideas to meet the market's demand for the larger format.  

By 1954, Art Blakey had become a dominant leader and often sought out Silver as sideman, with the drums and piano playing off each other as horns soared on top. The demand for Silver grew with the release of each new important recording, including Blakey's A Night at Birdland and The Miles Davis Quartet, Quintet and Sextet albums for Prestige. In '54 and '55, Silver, as a quintet leader, recorded his Doodlin' and The Preacher, which would become jazz standards along with many other originals in the coming years.

In 1956, with the arrival of the 12-inch LP, Silver recorded a series of albums that established him as one of the most inventive and dynamic hard bop pianists of the decade. The list included Silver's Blue (1956), 6 Pieces of Silver (1956), The Stylings of Silver (1957), Further Explorations (1958), Finger Poppin' (1959), Blowin' the Blues Away (1959), Horace-Scope (1960) and Doin' the Thing (1961), Silver's Serenade (1963) and Song for My Father (1964), his most successful album.

The looseness and funkiness of Doin' the Thing, recorded live at the Village Gate, was a major influence on many New York Latin and folk artists, who found inspiration in the honesty and earthiness of Silver's music. For jazz listeners, Silver's advantage was pianistic grace and a keen awareness that by resolving dark, minor-passages in airy, ascending and descending major-key chord configurations, the result could produce an exciting and uplifting feeling. In many ways, his minor-major storytelling approach and rhythmic style reminded one of a car's acceleration and escape from restraint. As a pianist, Silver was less concerned with the thud of the beat, focusing more on how driving riffs and restless tapestries of melody lines could make listeners want to strut around. Funk was contagious.

In the 1960s and '70s, Silver was at the forefront of the jazz-boogaloo movement and was such a potent jazz force in the late '60s that he caused Randy Brecker to leave Blood Sweat & Tears to take a job in Silver's quintet. Silver's music was always optimistic but never pop or commercial. His style was catchy, but his music never let you off easy. Instantly appealing to the ear, Silver's recording left you intellectually curious and more aware of your emotions. Instead of trying to impress you with a long solo or the strength or speed of a solo, Silver was a hip hypnotist, weaving a magic spell that prevented you from taking off his music once you put the album on.

By appealing to all quarters of the jazz market with up-tempo, rigorous songs and sensitive ballads, Silver ensured you would buy almost anything that had his name on it. In this regard, he was a record label's dream and one of jazz's most prominent tones. There's a touch of Silver in virtually everything that came in his wake, from Mongo Santamaría and Eddie Palmieri to Steely Dan and Return to Forever. Silver was gold.

JazzWax clips: Here are 10 favorite Horace Silver recordings...

Here's How Did It Happen...



Here's Hank's Tune...



Here's Metamorphosis...



Here's Silver's Serenade...



Here's Gregory's Here...



Here's Ecaroh...



Here's Horoscope...



Here's Yeah...



Here's Lonely Woman...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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