The Silver sponge
If I am asked who my favorite jazz artist is, I'm harder to pin down than a socialist standing for election in a republican district. My favorite dodge is to offer a range of performers, composers and arrangers who individually have satisfied my requirements for honoring the past while blasting into the future of the genre.

I recently reflected on this and came to realize that those requirements not only are my criteria for inclusion on my list of favorites; they also go a long way toward my definition of a given piece of music as jazz.

Recently I've been hearing a lot of jazz that, no matter how contemporary it sounds, fairly oozes with the influential echoes of the past. If this is artfully done, one can listen to a performance by a single musician and hear in it the influences of a score of other earlier and contemporary performers.

As I review my ever-shifting list of favorites, I find that it is increasingly true that those who ever have occupied a spot on that list tend to be originals who bring to the party something old, something new, something borrowed and, by all means, something blue.

There is a continuum of greats on my list. Each has added something to the earlier contributions that attracted me to the music. They stand as individual signposts that point backward to the history of the music and lead us ahead into concepts not yet discovered. The best of the greats assimilate more than a single influence and, thereby, ratchet up the stakes a bit.

As I write this on September 2, 2001, Horace Silver is celebrating his 73rd year of life and already has entered his sixth decade as a contributor to the evolution of jazz. And one of his towering virtues, aside from his talents as a pianist, composer and arranger, is his porous sensibility about the history of this music. He is akin to a sponge. When I listen to Silver, I hear a great selection of my early jazz heroes' influence, from Louis Armstrong to Art Tatum to Thelonious Monk to Cannonball Adderley and beyond.
This is natural, though, for Silver followed a winding path through a variety of musical gardens, plucking a petal here, digging a root there, transplanting an evergreen at another opportunity, until he had so completely assimilated his influences that what emerged was fresh, new, hopeful. And it always rewards careful listening.

A founding member of the Jazz Messengers in 1953, Silver built his musical homestead on a foundation outside the usual influences of jazz devotees. His Portuguese father gave the son the gift of a portion of his heritage with an introduction to the folk music of Cape Verde. Naturally, the young Horace retained the "color" of this influence and the jazz world is richer for the inclusion of his "Cape Verdean Blues" in its tradition.

But as his musical education progressed from the green cape through early training on the saxophone and piano, Silver, his mind already opened by the folk music his father had given him, discovered the blues, bop, boogie and, inevitably, bandstands in countries all over the globe.

In 1952, so the story goes, he appeared in a one-off backing trio with Stan Getz at a performance in Silver's native Connecticut and so impressed that fine sax man that Getz hired the entire rhythm section to return with him to New York. Young Horace was on his way.

This lucky break was followed by a broadening of experience that took place all over what then was the capital of fearless, sometimes reckless (but always bold), stretching out. Once again, Silver took what he could use musically -- for tonal embroidery, angular sculpture, lyric poetry, everyman prose and dynamic drama -- and is generally credited with being a founding figure in the history of hard bop, which was well-established and stands, in my hierarchy, as the last great movement in jazz before the moribund period (popularly speaking) that set in somewhere in the temporal vicinity of 1969.

My greats have a tendency to show up in Silver's career: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Oscar Pettiford, Lou Donaldson, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell -- think of some more and they probably will appear in the long chronicle of Silver's performing life. And they all combined to bring a saucy flavor to this music of ours, through Silver's influence on his corner of the vast jazz landscape.
So today, I salute the grand laboratory that is the body of Horace Silver's work. Here are some of my favorites. I hope you like them, too:

"The Trio Sides" [Blue Note, 1952];
"Horace Silver Trio & Art Blakey + Sabu" [Blue Note, 1952];
"Six Pieces of Silver" [Blue Note, 1956];
"Finger Poppin' with the Horace Silver Quintet" [Blue Note, 1959];
"Senor Blues" [Blue Note, 1963];
"Song for My Father" [Blue Note, 1964]:
"The Cape Verdean Blues" [Blue Note, 1965]; and
"The Jody Grind" [Blue Note, 1966].

Don't allow the 15-year cluster of these dates to deceive you. My list of favorities will not match yours. But you can trust Horace Silver to supply you with a satisfying concert any night of the week. Savor both his plain and exotic influences. For he is a fine chef in the kitchen of jazz.