Live at Newport '58
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon April 21, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
For many jazz fans, hard bop remains an acquired taste. It has a tendency to be more muscular and less introspective than the bebop that preceded it, and hard bop practitioners often have opted for an attack that is so sharp and angular that the resulting music demands, rather than politely asks, for the listener’s attention. While the hints of blues and Latin music that are referenced in many hard bop compositions initially may have had the effect of making the material more accessible, the genre’s relentless intellectualism has lost none of its edge over time. Seminal recordings from its prominent artists continue to challenge prospective fans more than a half-century after they were made.
Horace Silver’s Live at Newport ’58 joins a host of recently issued archival recordings that are utterly indispensable. These, of course, include Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane’s At Carnegie Hall and Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy’s Cornell 1964. Each of these endeavors has expanded upon and articulated a deeper understanding of the legacies of some of the last century’s greatest artists.
Silver was born in 1928, and although he had learned to play tenor saxophone in his youth, he made his mark playing piano. He first came to prominence in the early 1950s through his performances as a sideman at Birdland, New York City’s fabled jazz club, but he soon found himself equally busy in the studio. Among Silver’s early works were his recordings with drummer Art Blakey — which were issued both under his own name and as part of the Jazz Messengers, a group the duo had founded together. He also joined Miles Davis during the sessions for Walkin’. By 1956, however, Blakey and Silver’s working relationship had begun to splinter, and Silver’s desire to be the leader of a band led him to form a new outfit that consisted of the Jazz Messengers without Blakey. Silver also grew more confident as a composer, and he began to play his own challenging compositions in concert. Live at Newport ’58, then, clearly reveals a young artist at the peak of his powers.
Silver’s set at Newport runs barely 40 minutes in length, but every second of his performance is crammed full of musical ideas. At times, it seems as if there are too many concepts being pursued. However, because he didn’t leave much breathing room inside some of the passages, it’s hard to appreciate the interplay among the musicians as well as the melodies and counter-melodies that are tossed around at a breakneck pace. Obviously, Silver wasn’t looking to score points with his audience by creating easy listening fare.
Live at Newport ’58 is not an album that should be played in the background; the ideas put forth by Silver are too insistent, and the moods that he evokes shift too quickly. Sometimes Silver’s piano is subtle and lyrical, and when it is, the clouds part and the listener is bathed in warmth. This feeling, however, often is dispelled by the next rhythmic assault. In each of the four pieces on the disc, Silver demonstrates his mastery at creating space within which the other musicians can improvise. He appears to push the members of his band into corners, but at the last moment, he pulls back, leaving them to fend for themselves. He seems to delight in conjuring devilishly difficult tableaus through which his ensemble has to work, though he never demands more of his collaborators than what he is capable of delivering himself. Time and again throughout Live at Newport ’58, Silver proves that his own soloing passes muster. It is breathtaking — if a little exhausting — to hear the intricacy and rigor of his own leads, and his contributions to Cool Eyes, the collection’s closing number, are especially tight and complex.
Whatever one thinks of Silver’s approach and his theory of composition, the passion behind its creation and execution is palpable throughout Live at Newport ’58. The group’s style is intensely aggressive, and at times, drummer Louis Hayes threatens to overpower and swallow the more subtle aspects of what took place on the Newport stage. This is particularly true on The Outlaw, a 12-minute workout that left my head swimming. Hayes’ playing certainly was cutting-edge in 1958, and it prefigured the forceful, rhythmic drive that was favored by Tony Williams in his 1960s work with Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. The material’s relentless swing is provided by bassist Gene Taylor, who — along with Hayes — maintained Silver’s complicated tempos. Miraculously, the band’s output was never derailed, nor did the melody ever falter.
On other songs — notably the lovely and relatively concise nine-minute version of Senor Blues — the balance between the furiously assertive, almost metallic convergence of four musicians who simultaneously are assailing the same melody is answered by the nuances in Silver’s Latin-tinged piano playing. The way in which he responds to his horn section achieves a kind of muted, velvety funk. The more melodic portions of each of the compositions also give the horn players a chance to shine. Trumpeter Louis Smith and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook have no trouble with the brash and combative moods, but mostly, when they take turns soloing, they provide relief to the compositions. While Smith lacks some of the sweetness of tone that Blue Mitchell — Silver’s later trumpet player — achieved, his solos on Cool Eyes are delightful yet challenging. Cook’s contributions give depth and melodic stability to the songs, particularly on Tippin’ and Senor Blues.
Listening to Live at Newport ’58 forced me to reassess Silver as a composer and bandleader. While I previously had enjoyed both his work as a sideman as well as his historic recordings with Art Blakey, I had avoided most of his solo endeavors. I still prefer the spirituality of John Coltrane, the warm eroticism and inventiveness of Miles Davis, and the playfulness of Thelonious Monk over the earnest intellectualism of Silver’s approach. However, Live at Newport ’58 undeniably is an important event, and it is another step on the ladder of my musical education. Hopefully, there are still many recordings of similar value resting and waiting to be discovered in the vaults of Blue Note and the Library of Congress. We will continue to be richer because them. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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