For some of the most exceptional Hard Bop one need look no further than Horace Silver. Extensive listening to his recorded output, particularly his mid 1950s to mid 1960s recordings for Blue Note, cement Silver as both Hard Bop composer and pianist supreme. Silver, as well as his similarly minded cohorts (Art Blakey, Miles Davis, etc.…) pushed for a new direction in the music; away from what they felt was the overly complicated harmonic, and improvisatory nature of Be Bop – with a return to the music’s ‘down home,’ blues roots. Silver played a key role in establishing Hard Bop as a new style, by both creating a repertoire for it, and playing a key role as bandleader, and pianist.
By 1954 Silver had been on the scene for about four years, having performed and recorded with Stan Getz (with whom he’d made his first recordings), Miles Davis, Lou Donaldson, and Art Blakey. ’54 was significant; for it was the year that Hard Bop emerged as the next major development in the music, with Silver playing a key role. He appeared with the Miles Davis All-Stars on Walkin’ (4/29/1954 issued on Prestige)and performed extensively with Art Blakey, including their classic appearance at Birdland on February 21st captured on Blakey’s multi-volume “A Night At Birdland” issued on Blue Note , (which also included Clifford Brown, and Lou Donaldson in the band).
Beginning in November of 1954, Silver began a long-tenure with Blue Note records (with whom he’d recorded with previously), producing several classic albums, and composing nearly all the tunes. Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, recorded November 13th, 1954, and February 6, 1955, featured Hank Mobley, tenor, Kenny Dorham, trumpet, Art Blakey, drums, and Doug Watkins bass. Of the eight tracks recorded (all Silver compositions), “Doodlin’” stands out as quintessential Silver – a deceptively simple, yet thoroughly modern blues, brimming with soulful improvisation, and featuring a deliciously dissonant, catchy melody. “To Whom It May Concern,” features contrasting stop-time, and Afro-Cuban tinged open and closing passages, with plenty of straight-ahead rhythm, and solos in between, while “Room 608” is hard-swinging, exceptional Hard Bop.
The hit from this album though was a tune, which almost didn’t make it on, “The Preacher.” With its ‘old-time’ two beat feel, and simple chord progression, it inspired bluesy and thoroughly spirited improvisations, none of which came off as the slightest bit old fashioned. [“The Preacher proved so popular in fact, it was soon performed and recorded by Jimmy Smith and Dizzy Gillespie. Then, with words added, none other than Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby! Made a recording of it]
Horace Silver and Art Blakey would sever their fulltime partnership in 1956, with Blakey retaining the Jazz Messengers band name. Before their split, however, Silver added a definitive Hard Bop tune, “Nica’s Dream”, to the new idiom and recorded it for the major label, Columbia Records, on a Jazz Messenger album.
On Horace’s album, Six Pieces of Silver, Jazz Messengers Watkins, and Mobley are still present, but the dawn of the Horace Silver Quintet can be observed by the noticing Louis Hayes on drums, and Donald Byrd. Exceptional tracks include the medium tempo “Cool Eyes,” ballad feature for Silver and rhythm “Shirl,” the tour de-force “Virgo,” (with some stellar improvising by trumpeter Donald Byrd), and the funky “Senor Blues,” another Hard Bop classic piece that also entered the more general Jazz repertoire.
By the early 1960s Jazz had be subject to other new directions including the use of modes and Free Jazz, but Silver remained a Hard Bopper, arguably the most successful exponent of the style he’d helped pioneer.
In 1963, Silver’s Serenade provides another stunning flurry of fantastic tunes. Recorded May 7th and 8th, these range from the highly percussive, “Dragon Lady,” to the asymmetrical and hard swinging, up-tempo “Nineteen Bars,” to the enthralling shuffle beat of “Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty.” The personnel of this working quintet had coalesced by this time, with (the much overlooked) Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Junior Cook, tenor, Gene Taylor, bass, and Roy Brooks, drums. There’s clearly some contemporary modal, and free influence, but the deeper influence of The Blues still dominates. Other noteworthy albums include 1956’s Silver’s Blue, 1959’s Blowing The Blues Away, and his biggest hit, 1964’s Song For My Father.
Silver continued to record for Blue Note through 1979, but his most indelible mark was made in the period from 1954 through 1964 (culminating with Song For My Father). The variety of tunes, coupled with Silver’s clarity, and his pleasing balance of arranged passages to solo improvisation, are hallmarks of his genius, and account for his popularity. The remarkable stability of his band, particularly from 1958 through 1964 further enabled a string of consistently exceptional records. The classic Hard Bop quintet of trumpet, tenor, piano, bass, and drums, was almost always utilized, with these albums exemplifying a style of improvisation that was virtuosic, but not frenetic - that was bluesy and soulful, but never “retro”. By making Bebop Hard Bop took Jazz back to its roots via The Blues, Silver helped spur a resurgence in the music. For hard-swinging Jazz, quintessential Hard Bop, one need look no further than the Blue Note recordings of Horace Silver.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]