I didn’t want to end the year without doing at least ONE jazz review, and out of the hundreds of jazz albums on my to-do list, I chose the one I would characterize as “most exuberant.”
Horace Silver was a pretty exuberant guy, with a smile to match. When you read descriptions of his piano style, you see words and phrases like “crisp,” “chipper,” “idiosyncratic,” “colorful,” “upbeat,” “exciting,” “uplifting,” and “generous good humor.” I suppose how you react to that last tag depends upon your sense of humor. Monk is the only pianist who makes me laugh, but Horace does make me smile.
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers was an important and influential album, but before I get to that aspect of the work, I have to stress that it’s also an extremely enjoyable album. Jazz critics turn a lot of people off to jazz by droning on and on about the technical aspects of major developments in jazz, placing the aesthetic experience on the back burner. I will now harken back to the vernacular of the time and tell you that Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers is an absolute gas.
Its influence owed a lot to perfect timing. The post-war years of jazz involved a sharp departure from the rhythmic emphasis of swing to the harmonic emphasis of bebop. In simple terms, you can dance to swing but you can’t dance—at least in the conventional sense—to bebop (and because a lot of bebop is played at breakneck speed, you’d probably die of a coronary). Bebop made things even more complicated because the harmonies the Beboppers created were complex, non-standard harmonies—harmonies that sounded strange to the ears of anyone raised on classical music or The Andrews Sisters. In a muted response to bebop, some jazz musicians (particularly on the West Coast, but also Miles Davis) decided they wanted to slow the tempo and ease up on the intensity to produce a lighter sound while still embracing the harmonic connections bebop made possible. The critics named this style cool jazz (and in a fit of classification madness, later “discovered” a sub-genre of cool jazz called “West Coast Jazz.”) If you’re familiar with Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, that record is allegedly a marriage of cool jazz and West Coast Jazz (said the critics, ignoring the Turkish influences).
The thing with bebop and cool jazz is that both had moved jazz a long way from its rhythmic origins, particularly blues and gospel. Jazz lost a good chunk of its audience during these years in part because the music lacked what the average person would identify as rhythm. “Fer chrissakes, can’t ya gimme somethin’ I can at least snap my fingers to?” cried frustrated jazz fans.
“Sure thing!” said Horace Silver and Art Blakey, the masterminds behind a newly-formed jazz combo called the Jazz Messengers (the name had been around for a while, in Art’s possession). What Horace and Art did is inject contemporary R&B along with the early rhythmic underpinnings of jazz (gospel and blues) into their music. Horace (who composed most of the work) also shifted the emphasis from harmony back to melody, giving the average listener patterns they could easily recognize and recall. They didn’t abandon all the lessons from bebop but integrated those lessons into compositions characterized by melody and rhythm to make the music more appealing to an audience.
The critics had to name it something, so they called it hard bop.
If you’ve never heard Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, I’m going to tell you right now that you’re wrong. I am 100% positive you have heard snippets of several of the songs on this album—maybe in a film, maybe on television, maybe in the background music that accompanies your shopping spree if you’re lucky to shop in a place that doesn’t buy the cheapest muzak available. I would guess the two you’ve heard are “Doodlin'” and “The Preacher,” but “Creepin’ In” is also a safe bet. When Horace Silver set out to create memorable songs, he did not fuck around. The melodic phrases will stick in your head forever.
“Room 608” kickstarts the album with a high-speed swing (240 bpm) that certainly fits the bop paradigm. After a memorable introduction heavy on bluesy major and minor seventh chords (with some fascinating 6/9 variations and a loaded G7 at the finish), the quintet takes flight in a classic unison arrangement. A thunderous—and I mean fucking THUNDEROUS—drumroll from Art Blakey announces the shift from unison playing to soloists, and first up is the amazing and classically underrated Kenny Dorham on trumpet. With Horace Silver pushing him with assertive rhythmic support, Kenny flies like an eagle, completely in command of his instrument despite the breakneck speed. Combining bright clear notes with high-speed trills isn’t easy, but Kenny makes it all sound like a walk in the park. I hate to see him go, but the disappointment is fleeting as Horace Silver takes us on a solo loaded with a bright melody and spiced with a short series of intensely played blue notes that certify the piece as hard bop. Although a pianist can’t bend notes, you can achieve a similar effect with a quick run that ends on a flattened fifth or seventh (or a flattened sixth if you’re really evil), and Horace had the speed, discipline and percussive ability to pull it off with gusto. A stop-time unison segment follows with a saxophone teaser in the middle, indicating Hank Mobley is next up. I’ve always felt that Hank should have taken the first solo, saving Kenny for last, simply because Hank was from the laid-back school while Kenny Dorham had greater dynamic range and command. I do notice that Horace seems to intensify his playing during Hank’s solo, placing himself closer to the center of attention by focusing on the upper end of the keyboard. Hank gives way to Art Blakey, who restores the balance with a thumping drum solo that only hints at his virtuosity but successfully restores the intensity of the piece. All’s well that ends well as the quintet returns in tight unison, the last note going to bassist Doug Watkins, who has matched Art beat for beat to keep this sucker moving. “Room 608” is a knockout opening piece that displays the talents of the soloists and the absolute commitment of the band to the music.
“Creepin’ In” is a late-night mood piece that seems to begin as a minor blues but expands to include a larger chord palate as it moves forward, with A-flat minor serving as the anchor. Here Hank Mobley comes first after the unison introduction, his mellow tone reinforcing the smoky bar ambience. Kenny follows his lead by restraining his blow, happy to explore the myriad possibilities inside and outside of the baseline chord progression. Great contributions by both gentlemen, but throughout the piece I’ve had one ear focused solely on what Horace Silver is doing, and while it may be pianist favoritism, I find his work absolutely riveting. During the introduction, he dishes up a call-and-response to the main theme, providing a rather loping counterpoint that inspires a picture of a patron who’s had a bit too much of the sauce. Every now and then, though, he throws in a riff that strengthens the progression at just the right moment. During Hank’s solo, Horace turns up the brightness while shifting from chords in the pattern to slight variants that are complementary only within the larger harmonic palette of bebop. All brilliantly connective, but when it’s time for his solo, he shifts to Count Basie minimalism with a series of eventually descending blue note duplets before latching onto the main chord pattern. His next descent sounds almost classical, with formal-sounding trills that magically lead back to a more bluesy feel. His last descent combines a daring run down the keyboard before he reinforces the theme and ends in one beautiful flurry of blue. Although Monk is my favorite pianist, I use Horace Silver as my model for sustaining an unbroken connection with the theme on the rare but pleasant occasions when I sit in with a jazz combo. While “Creepin’ In” is the longest piece on the album, clocking in at 7:27, it never drags thanks to the combination of discipline and diversity of the combo and Horace Silver’s ability to pull it all together.
“Stop Time” ratchets up the tempo and gives everyone in the band a place in the spotlight, where they all shine. Art Blakey’s solo is framed within brief phrases from Dorham and Mobley on the first few rounds, but when they break the frame and let him go, he pounds those skins like there’s no tomorrow. Critics and fans have noted the relative restraint Art Blakey displays on this album, making moments like this solo all the more special. It’s followed by “To Whom It May Concern,” an interesting piece incorporating flamenco rhythm influences in the “chorus” and “urban cool” in the “verses.” “Hippy” gives the combo another chance to display their tightness in unison and the soloists another chance to riff off a straightforward chord pattern and the Blakey-Watkins rhythm section. Blakey’s solo here features one of his marvelous drum rolls, leading to a strong finish.
My first reaction to “The Preacher” is usually disorientation—something along the lines of “What the fuck?” Here I am digging the hard bop sounds mid-50’s America and all of a sudden I’m yanked back in space in time to Dixieland in the 1920’s. What the hell is “The Preacher” doing here?
My reaction is understandable and supported by precedent: producer Alfred Lion didn’t want the song on the album either. Horace Silver held his ground, and lo and behold, “The Preacher” became the album’s hit: another entry in my “What the fuck do I know?” journal.
Interestingly, the song did not originate anywhere near the bayou, but on an English train. Silver took the chords from a 1926 novelty hit called “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” written by two enterprising gents who wrote under the synonym “Irving King.” They were on a train heading out of London one evening, got likkered up and wrote a song about the numbing effects of alcohol. Back in the days when sheet music still held sway with the music-purchasing public, “Show Me the Way to Go Home” sold over two million copies, making the fake Irvings rich and respectable. The song has been recorded by many artists over the years, and modern listeners probably know the song from the movie Jaws.
Jazz composers often borrow chords from old songs as a starting point for new compositions, so it wasn’t unusual that Horace Silver found inspiration in this bit of Vaudeville. Where he differed from his contemporaries was in his straightforward approach—instead of deconstructing the piece à la Charlie Parker, he changed the rhythm to a good old Dixieland strut . . . well, kinda sorta. The first two passages are positively prehistoric, classic New Orleans jazz à la the Jazz Preservation Hall Band. After that, it’s smooth sailing on a looser rhythm where the soloists pay due respect to the melodic structure of the song while removing the starch, creating in effect a delightful tribute to the origins of jazz that clearly establishes the genetic connection to this newfangled hard bop stuff. When the combo returns to the main theme, the reaction is a smile instead of a jerk, and you appreciate the ingenuity that went into the arrangement.
The only non-Silver composition on the album is Hank Mobley’s piece, “Hankerin’.” This nice, breezy uptempo piece is a good intro to hard bop for the neophyte because of its cheerful major key melodic lines. Hank’s solo is relatively brief but helps temper the speed of the piece through his “no sweat” approach to the sax. Kenny Dorham absorbs the cue and delivers his solo without a lot of drama. Horace gets the bulk of the attention with a nimble, melodic solo that might sound sweet in a slower tempo. All through the piece, Art Blakey has expressed a certain restlessness, adding unexpected thumps and rolls in spots. When he finally gets his turn, you can hear him muttering to himself as enters the drummer’s trance and lays out a series of rolls and combinations over an ever-steady hi-hat beat. Blakey was Monk’s favorite drummer, and his versatility and ability to immerse himself in the flow demonstrated here shows how he earned that status.
The album closes with the familiar sounds of “Doodlin’.” Ira Gitler’s liner notes emphasize the inherent humor of the piece, an effect achieved by Mobley and Dorham playing in unison separated by an octave and a series of staccato notes in the third segment of this twelve-bar blues. When I hear the dominant line, I hear echoes of the Dizzy Gillespie-Kenny Clarke-Charlie Parker derivative piece, “Salt Peanuts,” an equally humorous morsel of music. “Doodlin'” also features Horace Silver’s slickest solo—urbane, confident and minimalistic. Once he leaves the spotlight, he remains in the perceptual field with superb rhythmic support that varies between chords, extended riffs and strong punctuation. Mobley follows Silver with an elegant passage, perfectly setting up Kenny Dorham’s sexy-as-fuck solo. He could have gone on forever as far as this chick is concerned, but he graciously gives way to Art Blakey’s multifaceted attack, and I forget all about Kenny. Yes, I’m a musical slut! The record ends and you think to yourself, “Man, what a great combo!”
Too bad they only recorded the songs you hear on this album and a couple of live gigs. While The Jazz Messengers lived on for decades in various configurations under Art Blakey, this group lasted less than two years. Both Blakey and Silver achieved the status of jazz legends; in Horace’s case more for his compositions than his piano, but I still consider him one of the best who ever put fingers to a keyboard. His joyful expressiveness—his exuberance—shines through in every performance. When you listen to Horace Silver, you may not hear a man who could play with the dexterity of Art Tatum or delight you with surprising choices like Monk, but you hear the sound of a man who couldn’t be happier to be alive and making music.