I have a general recollection of the first time I heard the piano of Horace Silver. There was an odd (but likeable) funk and his left hand tended to hit somewhat dissonant block chords I wasn’t used to. But mostly, it was his melodies that stood out. I believe that’s why Silver will be remembered long after his death on June 18, 2014. It was Bud Powell’s prowess at the keys that made you stop and listen. With Silver, it’s the melody. Not that all his melodies were happy and bright. His minor mood often came through in memorable ways, too.
Everytime I bought a Silver LP, I was hoping for more of same. Cool, funky tunes with a melody that wouldn’t let go. His songs were, and are, entertaining. That’s a pretty good epitaph for any musician.
So let’s take a listen to a Silver LP that might not be in your collection: Senor Blues, Toshiba EMI BNJ 61005 (Blue Note 61005). It’s a Japanese import (The Other Side of Blue Note 1500 Series), so don’t confuse this with an American LP with the very same photo on the cover, 6 Pieces of Silver (Blue Note 1539). Per the back of the LP, it’s called Senor Blues: Horace Silver Rare Tracks. There’s also an odd designation on the front cover, N-6-21, but per the microgroove.jp* website, it means this LP was released on June 21, 1984, along with six other Blue Note LPs. Whatever the name and numbers, it’s early Horace Silver and worth a listen.
This LP is a compilation of tunes that didn’t always make it onto the regular release of a record. For example, Thou Swell, Quicksilver and Knowledge Box come from the very first dates that Horace did for Blue Note back in October 9 & 20, 1952 but were left off of BLP 1502. This LP is also a mix of mono and stereo.
Side 1 opens with a familiar tune, Senor Blues, but it’s the single version and is a slightly shorter, different take than the LP release. Hank Mobley is on tenor, Donald Byrd on trumpet, Doug Watkins on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. Right off, this isn’t the best audio I’ve ever heard. Silver’s piano sounds somewhat compressed, lacking in depth and restricted in tonality. It’s disappointing in that regard, despite the fact that this is one of the reasonably well regarded Toshiba-EMI pressings. My listening system #1, with Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers revealed this. When I listen over system #2, it seems a little brighter and more present, but nothing to really write home about. The audio quality of the horn section comes through better than the piano, which lifts the recording up a notch. For whatever reason, this November 9, 1956 recording by Rudy Van Gelder isn’t quite up to snuff.
But like any of the great artists, performance can trump less than ideal sound quality, and I believe that’s the case here. I don’t think this is the best sounding Silver LP I’ve heard overall, but if you’re a fan, you will appreciate what might be hard to find tracks. Well, they were hard to find when this LP was released!
Senor Blues does exhibit the minor mood that Silver is often in, and makes for very compelling listening. There’s a longing in the melody that catches you and it’s hard to let go. The blues based piano hook, heard throughout, keeps you engaged, too. Somehow, it doesn’t sound like the typical blues chords or notes that just about anyone else would have played to ground the song. That was part of Silver’s genius, I think. Those notes could have been boring, but aren’t.
Tippin’ is another one of those great horn duo tunes, with Donald Byrd on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor. I LOVE this style of playing; one horn playing the melody and the other the harmony. I can’t think of anyone better at writing those melody-harmony notes than Silver. Really makes the song sing. Tippin’ also sounds a little better than Senor Blues. It’s brighter in the treble and less muddy in the mids and bass.
Thou Swell gives Silver another opportunity to take a standard and turn it into his own. There’s something about those Silver notes again, changing the song just enough. No horns here, just Horace. Drummer Art Blakey adds just a little mustard here and there to make it interesting. Like Senor Blues, it’s a little dull in sound quality.
Speaking of Blakey, he kicks off the appropriately titled Wham And They’re Off. A bright, upbeat cooker, it’s Art Farmer on trumpet and fave Hank Mobley on tenor this time, doing the melody harmony thing again. Both men solo extensively as Silver comps in the background. The horns come through rather nicely and Blakey gets the chance to solo. If he isn’t the most powerful drummer in jazz history, I don’t know who is. This song was originally recorded under the leadership of Mobley but is not the version that made the LP, Hank Mobley Quintet (BLP 1550). So it’s heard here for the first time. Better audio here.
The vocal version of Senor Blues took me a little getting used to, since it was slower than the instrumental. Terrific vocals by Bill Henderson. I don’t always like vocals applied to songs that began as instrumentals, but in this case I enjoyed it. Henderson has enough verve in his voice to take the melody up high and strong when he needs to and then come back down in dramatic fashion. According to the liner notes, Silver wrote lyrics, hoping a vocalist might pick it up and record it, adding to the value of the song. That didn’t exactly happen and he recorded it himself with Henderson. This version of the song has better sound than the instrumental.
Got three minutes? Check out a medley of five tunes, right from the LP! My vinyl is somewhat distorted, so when you hear some raspyness in the horn section, that’s it. No worries, it’s not your system, it was the previous owner who trashed this record, dammit! Includes both versions of Senor Blues.
This LP goes for quite a bit on Ebay. Is it worth $35 or more? Hmm, not sure I can say that. When an artist passes, it’s hard to not buy an LP that might be full of unknown gems. There’s a ton of Silver out there (pun intended) that will cost you less, but if you gotta have this LP, you do!
* The site, a discography of Japanese pressings, is here.