Michael Cuscuna discovered the Newport Jazz Festival recording while auditioning tapes in the Library of Congress. Now it has been issued by Blue Note, proving once again that there is nothing like the spirit and drive caught in a live performance. Since Silver made few live records, this is particularly important because it documents a seminal moment in the rising jazz star’s career and in jazz history.
Silver is considered one of the pioneers of the ‘50s hard-bop movement, alongside the likes of Miles Davis and Art Blakey. These greats took be-bop and mixed in gospel and blues, making the music more palatable for a wider audience.
Pianist/composer Silver formed a quintet following his departure in 1955 from The Jazz Messengers, a group he co-led with drummer Art Blakey, who continued on leading the Messengers for decades. Silver’s quintets had a unique sound, usually playing his compositions which had an indelible hard-driving, bluesy quality -- "funky" is a word often associated with his music. Over time, there were many personnel changes, sending such greats as Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell, Art Farmer and Michael Brecker on to success on their own.
Prior to the Newport appearance, the quintet had recorded its first big hit, Silver’s landmark "Senor Blues," which put Latin rhythm into the hard-bop mix. Personnel during the Newport date were Louis Smith, trumpet, Junior Cook, tenor saxophone, Gene Taylor, bass, and Louis Hayes, drums. An interesting aspect of the record is that it is the only existing full recording of Smith with the group. He would retire from jazz a year later, entering a teaching career. He can be heard here with several brilliant solos.
The quintet was given a 44-minute set, unusual at a time when most festivals allotted players mostly 20-minute blocks. Standing out, of course, among the tunes here is "Senor Blues," bringing cheers from the crowd and epitomizing Silver’s sound. "Tippin'," too, is a prize, showcasing Cook’s hard-swinging tenor solo, followed by Smith’s rat-a-tat trumpet turn, bringing to mind Clifford Brown. Haynes’ supercharged drums and brilliant rim shots, along with Taylor’s steady beat push this and all the numbers along.
Silver’s piano, needless to say, is the catalyst, displaying a percussive, hard-driving attack with links to Bud Powell. You can hear all this in his extended solo on "Cool Eyes." Also note his tasteful rhythmic comping behind exemplary solos by Cook and Smith.
In his introduction at the festival, jazz producer and broadcaster Willis Conover ranks Silver with Monk and Ellington as a player whose work would enter the jazz canon. This is an astute prediction evidenced by this CD.