The sound that Horace Silver pioneered in the ’50s and ’60s—for a while, all but synonymous with the sound of Blue Note Records—is for many people still the very definition of jazz. Raised in Connecticut and breaking through as a sideman for tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, Silver seems at first to be surrounded by “white bread” clichés. Yet nobody did more than the pianist, composer, and bandleader to ensure that jazz remained a distinctly African American idiom. Silver throttled bebop’s sense of swing up to 10 and its quotients of blues, gospel, and “the Spanish tinge” up to about 14. In the process he helped give birth to an idiom called “hard bop,” and had no small part in the subsequent development of soul jazz. His compositions “The Preacher,” “Doodlin’,” “Nica’s Dream,” and “Song for My Father” all became beloved standards.
An underappreciated aspect of his artistry, though, was Silver’s ability to make any tune, from any tradition, and even those traditions themselves, sound like Horace Silver. He put his indelible stamp on everything he touched … not least the very core of jazz. Here are 10 of his most important efforts.
Silver and his erstwhile co-bandleader Art Blakey are generally regarded as the founding fathers of hard bop. There’s little exaggeration to that claim—but it would be a mistake to overlook this key Miles Davis recording. The sextet take on Richard Carpenter’s “Walkin’” is absolutely sozzled in the potent blues and soul that Silver was already calling “funk.” You can hear it not only in Davis’ and tenor saxist Lucky Thompson’s wonderful solos, but in the responsive rhythm figures that Silver plays in his comp. As for the pianist’s own improv, even a quote from “When You Wish Upon a Star” (a Disney trademark even then) can’t water down the spice he puts into the performance. He plays a side role, but already Silver bears many of the signs of what he would become.