The Silver Bullet

Horace Silver (1928-2014)

Horace Silver (1928-2014)

Adios then, Señor Blues. We did a couple of numbers as tributes to Horace Silver on the gig last Monday. Didn’t even know someone had written lyrics to Nica’s Dream. Cool though.

Horace came up in the bebop era, but really hit his stride in the aftermath. Hard bop – the more accessible, downhome, bluesy, funky backlash against what many felt was the overwrought baroquery of bop pure (which was itself a bit of a backlash against dance band swing). Latin and Rock were coming up hard on the heel at the time, and he had a very strong handle on that stuff too. He was very much a child of his time.

That’s not to deride him as a trite populist at all. He wrote some very intricate pieces – for every Song for My Father, there was a Peace. They weren’t all riffy slammers. Anyway, simple tunes aren’t really simple – they just feel, somehow, fundamentally right. Wish I could be that simple. There’s a sense of honesty to it. You know when a tune just seems to play itself that it’s a good one. Everyone dreams of writing one like that, and Horace wrote a few.

Mission statement of mine, whether writing or improvising – don’t try and slay them with five hundred notes. Just play five really good notes, and play them the right way. That’s what really matters. Big dogs don’t need to bite.


For me though, the really interesting thing about him was his approach to writing and bandleading. He was, as were many of the greats, an artistic pragmatist. Bismarck defined politics as “the art of the possible”. Oh yeah, as in life and so in music. Ellington got it, so did Basie, so did Monk and Blakey and many others. Give the guys on the stand a really clear concept and the least possible chance of going wrong, then you’re in the best possible position to have them contribute and flourish, and the magic can happen. A blend of the artistic and the practical.

He worked with some great musicians, but Horace’s compositions and arrangements were generally virtually indestructible, bullet-proof, no matter who he put the parts in front of. Not necessarily “simple”, but usually pretty much bullet-proof – the “Hardbop Grandpop” prided himself on that. Sure, you don’t write for them like they were children, but you make it strong, make it natural for their instruments and allow for some forgive if anyone fluffs bits of it. Applies to any style of music – if someone squonks up the alto part and the baritone has an attack of bad prawns, the quartet can sing on.

It’s a lesson well worth learning. Trombonist gets arrested on the way to the gig? Can happen. Swap the alto and tenor parts – still works sweetly. Not the way you heard it in your head when you were writing it, but it still sticks and works. There’s as much craft to music as there is art, and no shame in admitting it. In fact – understanding that point will make you a better musician.

It’s actually rather difficult to sound bad on a Horace Silver tune, and to my mind that’s a mark of a really good composer. Adios amigo and hope the Baroness has the party warmed up and ready for you.

See also Finding Your G Spot

PS Horace didn’t just play the piano, he played the band. Worth thinking about.
Something like
Song for My Father is very much written for the horns – and although it was written by a pianist, there’s actually not much in the tune that even requires a pianist at all. Of course, a pianist can always find things to do, but I hope you catch my drift here.

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping, c) Musicianship, i) Reviews

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