Jazz Institute of Chicago

Horace Silver

Horace Silver
by Stuart Nicholson

Blowin' the Blues Away
Blue Note BLP4017 (A) BST84017 (A); GXK 8036 (J) CDP7465262 (A)+; CP325246 (J)+.

Blue Mitchell (tpt); Junior Cook (ten); Silver (p); Eugene Taylor (bs); Louis Hayes (d).
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
29 & 30 August 1959 and 13 September 1959.

Blowin' the blues away; The St. Vitus dance; Break city; Peace; Sister Sadie; The Baghdad blues; Melancholy mood.

Four fifths of this quintet were together for a Blue Note recording session on 15 June 1958 to back singer Bill Henderson. By the time they cut the album Finger Poppin' (Blue Note BST 84008) on 1 February 1959, Mitchell had joined on trumpet. It completed what many people regard as the classic Horace Silver quintet, "I think people loved that particular band,"[i] conceded Silver in 1993.

The Mitchell-Cook alliance would be a fixture for five years, until shortly after a 28 January 1964 recording session, appearing on a total of seven albums with Silver.[ii] Throughout this period, Silver was producing a series of well-crafted and often memorable compositions which his group delivered with audible delight and a spirit akin to that of the early Basie band.

Blowin' the Blues Away is the second Mitchell-Cook collaboration with Silver and is probably the best representation of this band, although to be fair all the albums they made together were remarkably consistent. Silver was a perfectionist. It may come as a surprise to fans of his effortlessly swinging ensembles that it was take 39 of the number "Juicy Lucy" and take 37 of "Come on home" that appeared on the album "Finger Poppin'".

Much careful planning went into Silver's numbers; he expected his group to rehearse regularly, to arrive promptly and to get down to business straight away. In performance, he wanted to hit a creative groove from the offset and worked with Ellington-like craftsmanship to create just the right settings for his soloists to ensure this. In a 1963 interview both Cook and Mitchell spoke of their growing ability to play meaningful passages within the confines of Silver's arrangements[iii] yet subsequently, just like so many Ellington sidemen, neither seemed capable of realising their full potential away from their former leader.

Silver's compositions are filled with simple catchy melodies that while being easy to pigeon-hole as 'funky hard bop' have in fact long outlasted that brief period in the fifties and early sixties when it was all the rage. Countless Silver compositions are now generally regarded as jazz standards, "Sister Sadie" from this album, for example, was recorded to great effect by the big bands of Buddy Rich on Swingin' New Band (+Pacific Jazz 7243 8 35232 2 1), Woody Herman on Woody Herman 1963 (Phillips [E] 652025BL) and the complete Gil Evans's Out of the Cool sessions (+Impulse IMP 11862).

Silver's compositions were generally more elaborate than those of any other hard-bop group, and frequently used unusual forms; here "Melancholy mood",[iv] for example, is a 28-bar AABA composition where each section is 7 bars in length.

Silver's arrangements were always well crafted and gave his group an unmistakable identity; as each unfolded there might be clever use of counterpoint, stirring riff figures behind soloists, use of secondary or subsidiary themes, quartal voicings for the front line, use of polytonal accompaniment, arranged bass lines that interlocked with the arrangement or were doubled by the piano and carefully arranged piano and drum punctuations.

Silver's own playing, a savvy mix of left handed rhythmic dissonance and right handed bluesy consonance (a good example is his solo on the title track), had, for a while, come under the spell of Bud Powell. But he had also learnt Avery Parish's "After hours" by heart, effectively a lexicon of public domain blues licks. Tempering Powell's velocity with an engaging melodicism firmly rooted in the blues tradition, his powerful rhythmic vitality created a style that simultaneously sounded familiar yet was wholly his own and was widely imitated by pianists in the '50s and '60s.

But Silver's style did not rely wholly on the congeniality of the blues; that left-handed dissonance, for example, was an acknowledged influence on Cecil Taylor.[v] And on his solo on "Baghdad blues" on this album, for example, moves from a blues scale in the first chorus to a whole tone scale in the second.

Silver's comping behind solos was particularly arresting. While superficially he might appear all bustling intensity, frequently he played quite specific piano riffs in contrast to the more flexible response of most pianists who reacted to the direction taken by the soloists. Often his riffs sounded as if they might have been written out in advance, and in this respect his approach is similar to that of John Lewis with the Modern Jazz Quartet. While there may be arguments for and against this method of accompaniment, the fact remains that in Silver's hands (and Lewis's), this particular approach to accompaniment worked very effectively.

As Martin Williams pointed out, "The overall impression is one of cohesion and order...particularly on "Blowin' the blues away" and "Sister Sadie", Silver uses his piano excellently...propelling his soloists along with background riff figures."[vi] The word 'propelling' is particularly apt, especially on the title track, which still remains one of the most stirring hard-bop performances ever recorded.

"Blowin' the blues away" is at a very bright tempo[vii], and as the title suggests, is a 12-bar form. The theme is preceded by a two-bar 'fanfare' in tempo and immediately it is clear a lot is happening—and very quickly. The tempo is pretty close to the limit a bass player can comfortably sustain four beats to the bar, while the theme, repeated twice, is built on a series of accents and cross accents against the basic pulse.

Throughout, Hayes's drumming is a model of controlled abandon, his performance adding immeasurably to the excitement of the whole. Cook takes four choruses, and on his second weaves his line around a figure Silver plays in his accompaniment that showed just how the front line used Silver's pre-written figures to their own advantage, although when the figure reappears in the second of Mitchell's five choruses he chooses to ignore it.

Each solo precisely addresses the needs of the moment in a lucid, yet economical way. A highlight of the album is how both Cook and Mitchell conceived their solos as a logical whole; throughout, their playing is model of construction; there is nothing wild-eyed about their work, nothing is gratuitous or throw-away, instead a focus and intensity that even today aspiring young musicians can learn from.

On "Break city" Silver takes a ten chorus solo and it is interesting how his solo remains within the orbit of the closely voiced chords usually played around the centre of the keyboard; there are no sweeping Bud Powell runs in his playing, instead percussive melodic fragments and phrases are stirred into a intense, boiling cauldron that Cecil Taylor described as, "The real thing of Bud, with all the physicality of it, with the filth of it and the movement in the attack."[viii]

Silver's left hand plays a more prominent role than that of Powell, using densely voiced chords in the lower part of the keyboard, often as accents and cross accents, almost in the way the old bop drummers used to 'drop bombs'. Sometimes his left hand accompaniments could be distinctly polytonal and the attack with which they were played clearly impressed Taylor. Following Silver's solo, Mitchell opens two choruses of two-bar exchanges with Cook, rising to the challenge of sustaining a cogent line between them, rather as if one horn was soloing. A highly effective device, it not only climaxes a powerful group performance but also underlines the enormous empathy they had developed, both by dint of careful preparation and hours spent together on the bandstand.

The 10-bar theme "Peace", with its pleasing major-minor feel, again demonstrates both Cook's and Mitchell's unity of construction in their solos, this time in a ballad context. "Sister Sadie" is one of the best known of all Silver's compositions. The emphasis is on a gospel feel that for a while exemplified the back-to-the-roots ethos of hard-bop during the '50s which, of course, ideally suited Silver's piano style. A 32-bar AABA song, it still sounds fresh today almost certainly because of the integrity of both composition and performance.

Silver cleverly uses a 'blues' change by remaining in the tonic for the 'A' sections, moving to the sub-dominant in the 'B' section, a chord movement that evokes the I-IV change in the 12-bar blues sequence. The takes from the 29 August session was rejected and this, the second take from 30 August session has a swagger and confidence that is the essence of this group's best performances.

After a statement of the theme, Mitchell takes just one chorus, followed by Cook's two. During the second, Mitchell and Silver introduce a hard driving riff figure behind the 'A' sections of Cook's improvisation. After Silver's two chorus solo, two secondary themes are introduced, again on the 'A' sections, leaving the 'B' clear for improvisation. The second of the two new themes is a recapitulation of the riff figures played behind Cook, but here introduced as a theme in its own right, lending a pleasing sense of unity to the performance before a return to the original theme.

While it might be argued that the way Silver structured his material was modest, in the context of so much of hard bop it provided a refreshing alternative to the head-solos-head approach that characterised so much of the music. Hard bop was essentially rugged and powerful and over-complication would have detracted from its urban rawness. What Silver did was to find a balance between the competing needs of expressive freedom and compositional design and in so doing produced some of the most satisfying, enduring and often exciting music within the hard-bop idiom.

i. Interview with SN, 13 May 1993, published in part in Jazz Express, October 1993.
ii. Other than the two Silver albums mentioned in the text on which Mitchell and Cook appear together, the remaining albums are: Horace-scope (BST84042) from 8-9 July 1960; Doin' the Thing at the Village Gate (BLP4076) from 19-20 May 1961; The Tokyo Blues (BST84325) from 13 July 1962 and Silver's Serenade (BST84131) from 7-8 May 1963. Mitchell and Cook also appear on Calcutta cutie recorded on 31 October 1963 and issued on the album Song for my Father (BST84185). All the titles from this 31 October session were later issued as BN (J) CP32-5213 together with two tracks from their final 28 January 1964 session.
iii. downbeat, 20 June 1963, page 20.
iv. Previously recorded on Further explorations, Blue Note BLP1589.
v. Four lives in the bebop business by A. B. Spellman (see bibliography), page 62.
vi. The jazz tradition by Martin Williams (see bibliography), page 200.
vii. Interestingly well in excess of the fastest tempi indicated on a metronome of l =208 -(probably circa 238bpm).
viii. Four lives in the bebop business, page 62.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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