Remembering Horace Silver, Hard Bop Pioneer

Remembering Horace Silver, Hard Bop Pioneer

3:00pm Jun 20, 2014

Jazz pianist, bandleader and composer Horace Silver died Wednesday at age 85. Fresh Air critic Kevin Whitehead says that Silver had been off the scene awhile, but his influence is as strong as ever. Hear an appreciation.

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This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist, bandleader and composer Horace Silver died Wednesday at age 85. Silver had been inactive in recent years, suffering from Alzheimer's. But our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says, even though Silver has been gone from the scene for a while, his influence is as strong as ever. Here is Kevin's appreciation.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Horace Silver on his first recording in 1950, already showing his playful side. Quoting from a of couple spirituals and a light classic by Mendelssohn. The leader there was Stan Getz, who'd hired the pianist off the bandstand in 1950 after playing a one-nighter with Silver's trio. The piano player had a rocking sense of rhythm and an earthy feel for the blues. His left hand seemed to grunt along with his right.


WHITEHEAD: Horace Silver's "Safari" from 1952. When Silver hit New York the year before, everybody wanted to hire him. Soon, he was helping Art Blakey establish his Jazz Messengers and left a permanent stamp on that band, which the drummer would lead into the 90s. This is Horace's "Quicksilver."


WHITEHEAD: Silver could handle bebop's high-speed chases, but he favored more relaxed tempos and stronger echoes of blues and gospel - what came to be called hard bop. He started leading his own two-horn quintets, featuring no end of original tunes with infectious built-in grooves and maybe little extensions or riff interludes to spur the players on. On his mid-50s hit, "The Preacher," adapted from an old drinking song, you can practically see the congregation swaying in the pews. Whole bands, whole movements would take off from that sound.


WHITEHEAD: Horace Silver wrote so many melodies jazz musicians love to play, we don't dare start listing them. Many of them have a Latin tinge. His father had come from Cape Verde, the Portuguese colony off west Africa, and Horace heard the island's traditional music growing up. That Afro-Portuguese connection deepened after he visited Brazil and wrote his biggest hit, 1964's "Song For My Father." Its hook was a ridiculously simple two-note baseline that Steely Dan later borrowed.


WHITEHEAD: Between the mid-50s and mid-60s, Horace Silver made a dozen albums of his durable ear worms for Blue Note, the label he'd stay with for 27 years. Later, he'd start his own company, putting out albums with vocals and self-improvement messages, such as "Guides To Growing Up," narrated by Bill Cosby. But even in the early 70s, Silver was writing consciousness-raising lyrics. This one was sung by one of his favorite singers, Andy Bey.


ANDY BEY: (Singing) The food we eat today is filled with toxic spray. The hormones that they add will slowly drive you mad.

WHITEHEAD: In the 70s, Silver changed up, sometimes using electric piano or electric bass. Or he'd expand his band, adding a horn or string section or a vocal choir. But jazz fans loved his old sound best. He was plagued by various health issues and stopped recording in 1999. His last albums were a return to form, giving the people what they wanted. More catchy, bluesy Horace Silver tunes with Latin undercurrents.


WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Greene on tenor. We don't have time to talk about all the great musicians Horace Silver trained. And we haven't talked about his influence on pianists as diverse as free jazzer Cecil Taylor, attracted to what he called the filth in Silver's playing, and Nashville hero Floyd Kramer. He echoed Silver's lean and singing piano sound and recorded Horace's "Opus De Funk." Silver's pieces put musicians in a mood to play and were meticulously constructed and finely polished to sound casually off-hand. What he did well, he did better than anybody. Half a century after he got started, Horace Silver showed he could still do it.


BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Jersey Boys" and "Venus In Fur." And we hear from Carole King about Gerry Goffin, her former spouse and writing partner, who died earlier this week. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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