Horace Silver: Ecaroh


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One of pianist Horace Silver's most haunting and sophisticated compositions is Ecaroh, a song that defied convention and gravity, for that matter. The song packs an eclectic punch, shifting restlessly between major and minor keys and employing several brooding rhythms that build with drama and mystery. There's the mildly Latin introduction, which halts abruptly and springs into swing before resolving in funk. The song's urgent motifs never seem to repeat, and yet they do, in variation.

To me, Ecaroh (pronounced EK-ah-row] sounds like someone running through the interior of a cloister, with each sanctuary different and no clear path out of the monastic setting. Or a giant wooden puzzle with different shaped pieces that are impossible to replace once you remove them. Which makes you wonder how Silver ever managed to compose this intricate and singular work.

Interestingly, Silver recorded Ecaroh only twice—once in 1952 and again in 1956. It's unclear why he never bothered to revisit the song with his own quintet. Then again, given his prolific composing career, he perhaps didn't feel the need to or didn't think to bother.

Ecaroh was first recorded by Silver in October 1952 in a trio setting for Blue Note with bassist Curly Russell and drummer Art Blakey. Despite the year, what Silver records isn't bebop. It's something else—something more complex and introspective. There are touches of Baptist gospel here along with the tautness of mambo and temperament of swing. Ultimately, Ecaroh's density and purpose would pave the way for hard bop in the years that followed. But in 1952, it clearly was way ahead of its time from a harmonic and chromatic standpoint.

The second version of Ecaroh was recorded in May 1956 for The Jazz Messengers, a Columbia album released under the direction of producer George Avakian. The group on this date featured trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonist Hank Mobley, Silver on piano, bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Art Blakey. This later version has a more fully formed hard bop feel, with Silver building drama percussively and Blakey adding press rolls and random stick patterns. It also struts harder, with rooster-like insistence.

Silver shed some light on the song's title in his autobiography Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty:
“When I gigged around Connecticut with some of the other teenage musicians, we got into a kick of calling each other by our names spelled backward... I was Ecaroh. Later, when I started my own music publishing company, I named it Ecaroh Music Inc."
His thinking behind the song and how he came to write it remain a mystery. Nevertheless, the two versions are fun to compare. For example, listen to Silver's left hand in the 1952 introduction function almost like a one-note stride player, hitting bass notes like a metronome. On the 1956 version, Silver hits a tight chord to create a Morse code pattern, countering Blakey's drums. 

Without belaboring the point, Ecaroh is a fascinating song with a house of mirrors feel that charms and captivates as it pulls you in. Just trying to figure out whether sections repeat will keep you busy for hours.

JazzWax tracks: Ecaroh appears on two albums: Horace Silver (Blue Note) and The Jazz Messengers (Columbia). They can be found at iTunes or here and here. Both are must-own albums.

JazzWax clips: Here are the two versions of Ecaroh. First, here's the 1952 trio version...

And here's the version from The Jazz Messengers in 1956...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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