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In Writing

Jazz Searches For The New Land: Horace Silver

March 2015

Join Derek Walmsley on his journey through the jazz that imagined liberation through distant places and spaces, from Africa and the Far East to the cosmos. Fourth stop: Horace Silver’s “The Baghdad Blues”, “The Tokyo Blues” and “The Cape Verdean Blues”.

Horace Silver was a bad ass. He played piano like a boxer, weaving fast from one hand to the other, a blur of feints and strikes behind a forceful left hand jab. This was rock ’n’ roll, in terms of its physical force, righteous soul and bumpy ride, at a time when that term was reserved for pop hits and svengali conjoured novelties. “The Baghdad Blues”, “The Tokyo Blues” and “The Cape Verdean Blues” are all intense workouts with the piano as a punch bag.

As with much popular music made before electricity was part of the equation, it takes imagination to sense how hard this music hit at the time. That’s particularly true of acoustic jazz in its live setting, where the sounds of the instruments came at you from every angle and surface, and the bandstand itself became a resonating instrument. Horace Silver didn’t dig electric pianos; they denied him the variation of sound and feel he craved. To reactivate the force of his music – as with that of Louis Armstrong or Sonny Rollins – requires close listening, a form of aural hermeneutics where you set aside the usual modern desires for distortion, compression and sub bass and imagine yourself in the room with the music.

“The Baghdad Blues”, from Silver’s best album Blowin’ The Blues Away, opens with him pounding low octaves on his keyboard in a frenzied dance. As with many Silver compositions, repetition is used to conjure music of the natives (as the title of “The Natives Are Restless Tonight” put it) whoever they may be. When “The Baghdad Blues” drops into a relentless main horn theme, Silver offsets ringing chords from his right hand with ham-fisted slaps of his left. Those discordant blows are deliberate, even relished, in the way that a guitarist with a gnarly fuzz pedal accentuates the noise of their fingers dampening or moving between strings. Like Lou Reed on The Velvet Underground’s notorious Legendaly Guitar Tapes bootleg, Silver plays rhythm and lead simultaneously. “Horace is the Negro idea because he was playing the real thing of Bud [Powell], with all the physicality of it, with the filth of it, with the movement in attack,” praised fellow pianist Cecil Taylor in AB Spellman’s Four Lives In The Bebop Business. “Yet Horace supposedly had no technique, which again brings us the idea of what technique is.”

Silver began as a saxophonist, but spent hours as a kid playing piano along to Lester Young discs at home, slowing the speed of his wind-up phonograph so he could catch what the musicians were doing. Schooling himself via the record store, he became a skilled arranger, composer and accompanist while still in his early twenties, and was contracted to Blue Note as leader and sideman shortly after he moved to New York around the turn of the 1950s. His father was from Cape Verde, an archipelago of islands off the west coast of Africa. This inheritance of folk styles, allied with Silver’s prodigious knowledge of jazz arrangements, his love of movies, and his role as a Blue Note figurehead, gave his music a touch of glamorous exotica.

“The Baghdad Blues” from 1959 was followed by the albums The Tokyo Blues and The Cape Verdean Blues in the early 60s. The title track of the former again relies on repetition, with minor third intervals lending a cod Orientalism, but the way Silver glides up and down the keyboard gives it the feel of an ersatz Zen ballet. “The Cape Verdean Blues” is a hustling uptempo shuffle inspired by the music of his father’s home country, and it moves through its chord changes with such dizzying speed that unfamiliar melodies quickly become second nature, like getting swept up in the crowd of a carnival procession.

There’s little in Silver’s autobiography Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty that suggests why his music travelled to far off lands. It was written as Silver was approaching his eighties, and it has the sense of him settling affairs and coming to terms with his own mortality. Time is too short to ask big questions of why life turned out as it did; there is just a growing sense of affirmation and acceptance that this is how it should have been. There are fond namechecks for the places he’s been and the many stars, now dead, that he rubbed shoulders with, from Young to Powell to Rollins.

Everything in the book is expressed with good manners and an undemanding sense of gratitude. With just one crucial exception: his hometown in Connecticut. “Norwalk was a nice little town, but it was a prejudiced town,” he recalls bitterly. “The prejudice of Norwalk people was like a dark cloud over my head. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and travel the world and be a great musician.” The book chronicles his travels across the globe and the many fine ladies he meets, and discusses in often cringeworthy detail the virtues of American women versus European, South American or Asian. But for Silver, being a tourist was a true privilege. He hit the highway to find romance, adventure and freedom, and that’s as rock ’n’ roll as anyone who ever wielded a guitar.

Need to catch up? Read Derek's first instalment on Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land" here, the second call on Herbie Hancock's "Oliloqui Valley" here and the third on Yusef Lateef's Jazz 'Round The World here.

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