I was out of the country when Horace Silver died in June this year and when I got back no-one told me. So I only discovered a few weeks ago. Reading the obituaries I was struck by the fact that the key songs they mentioned were not my favourites: the highlight was on the funk numbers like Sister Sadie. For me Silver was one of the greatest jazz composers, up there with Mingus, and the funk numbers, with their simple, derivative riffs, weren’t his strongest suit.
I have regrets about Horace Silver: when I discovered jazz as a student in the ’60s I was in thrall to guitarists and hardly at all listened to Miles, Coltrane, Monk or any of the great innovators. Wes Montgomery was my hero (and still is) but I missed the golden age of jazz: I was there but not there.
So my first Silver pieces were Ecaroh (Wes Montgomery) and Nica’s Dream (Kenny Burrell and Jack McDuff). The latter exercised a special fascination for me: it’s perfectly formed structure; its indefinable quality: part Latin, part bebop. And some characteristic Silver chords which I later discovered to be minor 9ths.
Why I didn’t explore the Silver song book then I will never know but it took another 30 years. When I did, I set myself to work out the harmonies of Nica’s Dream and recorded it myself on computer. And I starting buying Horace Silver albums.
I’m not a completist in anything but I’ve now heard enough Silver to pick a top 10, so here goes:
Song to my Father
Cape Verdean Blues
Silver’s music is sui generis. He is the master of structure: during the solos you always know where you are in the chord sequence – none of the blur that much up-temp bop creates. He runs serpentine melodies over simple pedal chords, as in Pretty Eyes and Calcutta Cutie; minor 9ths and augmented fifths create much of the appeal of his most famous piece, Song for my Father. He is a whole pattern book of jazz resources. To make a surprising comparison, he is like Frank Zappa in writing instantly recognisable music that could be by no one else and which combines a wide range of elements: in Silver’s case: swing-era sax voicings, Latin, Afro, bebop, and a taste of his father’s Cape Verde Islands.