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December 17, 1999:

Horace Silver

Retrospective (Blue Note)

Call it anti-bebop. Horace Silver, who along with Art Blakey coined the hard bop movement, did so out of a serious concern for the future of jazz. Concerned that Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and others were taking the music down an elitist path, overintellectualizing and hyper-speeding their way to obscurity, Silver's down-to-earth instincts looked for a way to bring in the crowds again. He found it in bluesy, flippant melodies laid out at a soul-groove tempo; they swung hard, but they were a long way from "Salt Peanuts." When saxophonist Lou Donaldson suddenly couldn't make a 1952 session, Blue Note's Alfred Lion tapped his pianist for the gig. Silver was ready; he would record for the label for more than a quarter century, longer than any other Blue Note artist, and largely define what came to be known as the "Blue Note sound." Retrospective is largely a well-chosen, if overlong, 4-CD representation of this era, though Silver's best work has always been obvious, if only because weaker efforts too often played out as pale imitations. His upbeat style had, from the beginning, inherent limitations. Silver had carte blanche at Blue Note and released a lot of music, not all of it stellar. Until he discovered just the right blend of funk, soul, and jazz, he pushed the pop envelope too far, resulting in work that resembled bad Fifties sitcom themes. Yet on his best sessions, the late Fifties' Blowing the Blues Away, the Sixties' Song for My Father, Tokyo Blues, and The Jody Grind, all represented here, the distinct stylist forges some true jazz classics. Of particular note is the work Silver coaxes from sidemen. Trumpeter Blue Mitchell had his finest hour with Silver, and Joe Henderson's work is also among his best; Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, Kenny Dorham, and Stanley Turrentine all shine on these sessions. In the late Sixties, both Silver's music and Blue Note itself went into steep decline. Lion retired, corporate owners came in, and suddenly, Silver begin to fancy himself not just a jazzman of distinction, but a trend-setting pop stylist. Abysmal, preachy lyrics begin to mar his work, and the more Silver widened his experimentation, the worse it got. The quintet with Tom Harrell was an attempt at redemption, but the magic was not there, and much of the group's work was needlessly overdubbed. The result is a collection whose final CD will likely stay in its case. When Silver finally left Blue Note, he would spend most of the next decade recording for his own label, releasing strange concept albums exalting music's healing power. Happily, at the conclusion of an astounding fifth decade making albums, Silver has somewhat returned to form, a form exemplified in the meat of this collection. It's obvious to even casual listeners that these recordings from Silver's prime were, and continue to be, hugely influential -- and equally obvious this endearing music belongs in any serious jazz collection.

**.5


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