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The Boston Phoenix Piano Man

The hard bop of Horace Silver

By Richard C. Walls

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  With Retrospective (Blue Note), the definitive Horace Silver box set has finally arrived. And it's about time. There have been a few "best of" releases over the years but they were single-disc affairs, meager samplings from a long and prolific career. This time we get four CDs and 45 selections covering the entire period of the pianist's prodigious gig as a leader for Blue Note (1952-'78), from the 23-year-old punk pounding out a strange mix of bebop and early Ellingtonian jungle music ("Safari") to the 50-year-old past master still plunking away on a somewhat melancholy two-part concoction called "The Soul and Its Expression." And still one could think of a dozen or so crucial cuts that are missing.

Often box sets featuring musicians with decade-spanning careers tell a similar story -- early promise, fulfillment, a plateau at peak power, then a decline into irrelevance, despite flashes of the old brilliance (diehard fans prefer to see this last phase as the artist's "classical" period). Sometimes the progression is pretty stark, as on the Clapton box set Crossroads -- two CDs of excitement followed by two CDs of blinding depression. Sometimes, as with Silver, it's more subtle, more a matter of an artist connecting to and then slipping away from the zeitgeist. Silver will never write another song with the impact of his greatest hit, "Song for My Father" (1964), for the same reason that the Stones will never come up with another "Paint It Black" -- the song is no longer necessary.

When Silver arrived on the scene, in the early '50s, he was an innovative reactionary, one of those hard-bop musicians who were going about the business of redirecting jazz away from the limpid nuances of cerebral cool. Silver called his music "funky," which was a slang word for "stinky," and it was meant to be happily indecorous -- aggressive and unsubtle and pumped up with borrowings from swing bands (particularly the riff-based regional type), blues, and gospel music. There was a racial aspect to this project (one funkateer who followed in Silver's wake said he consciously wanted to play music that white musicians would feel uncomfortable playing), though with Silver any innate militancy was overwhelmed by his joie de vivre.

Although touted as a great influence (which to many is the highest praise, for reasons I've never been able to figure out), Silver is actually, in his way, as bizarre a player as Thelonious Monk, and as inimitable; you can't play like Silver without sounding as if you were doing an impersonation (by contrast, Bud Powell was a great influence because he perfected a style that became the lingua franca of jazz pianists, a rich, complex approach that lent itself to being personalized without being duplicated). Silver's playing is percussive and often disjointed -- his solos rarely flow but jump from idea to idea, a series of riffs, blues clichés, interpolations from other songs, all demarcated by sharp-edged accents from his left hand, a signature sound that, as the '50s progressed, evolved into a strange-sounding bark.

The style is intact as early as '53's "Opus de Funk," where minuscule bits of boppish connective material bridge the spaces between those self-sufficient bluesy phrases that never seem to stop coming. Silver is like the Henny Youngman of jazz -- he specializes in the brief comment but he's got a million of 'em, he's relentless, and his timing is impeccable. His blues fecundity has universal appeal just as his concept of an improvised solo as a series of disruptions is archly modern. He's listener-friendly, but unlike later purveyors of funk piano (e.g., Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann) he has an eccentric edginess that keeps him from being banal.

"Opus de Funk" has become a jazz standard, along with at least six more of the 14 cuts on disc one, a testament to his compositional prowess (let's see -- at least three on disc two are now in the general jazz repertoire, one on disc three, and zero on disc four -- pretty much bearing out paragraph two above). There are some early trio cuts here, but Silver's medium of choice was the quintet, his longest-running one being the group fronted by tenor-saxophonist Junior Cook and trumpeter Blue Mitchell ('58-'64, and represented by 13 selections). Neither horn player was a world shaker on his own, but in the hothouse of Silver's well-rehearsed sessions they sounded, in an energetically terse sort of way, positively inspired.

Silver kept the faith throughout the '60s, even when funky hard bop started sounding a little quaint. In the early '70s he made some recordings with various vocalists singing his original and truly dreadful pseudo-philosophical lyrics, something the box set dutifully but briefly acknowledges. Well, nobody's perfect. But disc four finds the pianist playing out his Blue Note contract with surprising vigor. In fact, for those who remember this period ('72-'78) as a fairly fallow one for Silver, the cuts here come as a revelation -- the old fire is still present in the solos and the compositions are pleasantly memorable. Maybe it's just a case of canny selecting on the part of the compilers. Personally, I'm going back to find out. You should too.

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