Looking back over the last fifty years of jazz it is clear that few musicians have had a greater impact on the contemporary mainstream than Horace Silver. The hard bop style that Silver pioneered in the '50s is now dominant, played not only by holdovers from an earlier generation, but also by fuzzy-cheeked musicians who had yet to be born when the music fell out of critical favor in the '60s and '70s. One of the most individual and distinctive pianists in jazz, Horace Silver is also a prolific composer, an accomplished bandleader, and one of the main originators of the styles known as hard bop and soul jazz.
Silver's earliest musical influence was the Cape Verdean folk music he heard from his Portugese-born father growing up in Connecticut. Later, after he had begun playing piano and saxophone as a high schooler, Silver came under the spell of blues singers and boogie-woogie pianists, as well as boppers like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. In 1950, Stan Getz played a concert in Hartford, Connecticut, with a pickup rhythm section that included Silver, drummer Walter Bolden, and bassist Joe Calloway. So impressed was Getz, he hired the whole trio. Silver had been saving his money to move to New York anyway; his hiring by Getz sealed the deal. Silver worked with Getz for a year, then began to freelance around the city with such big-time players as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Oscar Pettiford.
He made several recordings with Getz, proving that Silver's funky, bluesy style of piano was already well-formed in his early 20s. Silver worked with a wide range of musicians and played regularly at a number of Manhattan clubs. His big break came when Lou Donaldson abruptly cancelled a recording date, and Blue Note asked Silver to make the session instead with his own trio.
This began a long relationship with the label, and provided a platform for his playing with several other leaders, including Miles Davis and Art Blakey, as well as a chance to record many of his own compositions. Silver's start with Blue Note in 1952 led him to his first recordings as a leader. In 1953, he joined forces with Art Blakey to form a cooperative under their joint leadership. The band's first album, Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, was a milestone in the development of the genre that came to be known as hard bop. Many of the tunes penned by Silver for that record - "The Preacher," "Doodlin'," "Room 608" - became jazz classics and have been performed and recorded by many musicians including Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Dizzy Gillespie among others. These same songs set a new standard in using soul in jazz. From 1954-6, Silver and Blakey played in the co-operative Jazz Messengers, until Blakey took over the band and Silver formed his own quintet.
He has led his own groups consistently since 1956. Silver's first breakthrough as a composer came with pieces written for the Messengers, such as The Preacher
, but on his own albums he went on to create a string of memorable pieces that similarly combined a catchy tune with a forceful gospel-inspired beat, such as Sister Sadie
, Cape Verdean Blues
and Song For My Father
. His bands have consistently been a training ground for great soloists, and his sidemen have included a host of subsequently famous names.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s he experimented with larger groups and a different style, but from midway through the '80s he returned to hard bop, and in the 1990s signed with Verve records, creating some worthy successors to the many classic albums he made during his 28 years at Blue Note. His piano style involves sharply defined, bluesy right hand phrasing, over a grumbling left-hand bass that is unlike the style of any other player, and remains his immediately identifiable musical signature.
His influence continues with the release of Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff
, Silver’s Bop City Records debut. The concept of the album is based on a dream of Silver’s in which Duke Ellington and Rachmaninoff meet in heaven. Rachmaninoff is then introduced to many jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, "Muddy" Waters, Mahalia Jackson and many others. These musical tales converge many of the great styles largely pioneered by Silver throughout his career. These songs are driven by Silver’s signature piano styling and powerful arrangements, and once again demonstrate his significant contributions to jazz.