Everyone has a favorite Horace Silver album. Mine is Horace- Scope. Recorded in July 1960, the album has a hair-raising lineup of tracks and a superb mix of Silver's grumbling bass lines, high-energy melodies and snap-crisp horns. Don't get me wrong, I love Song for My Father, Six Pieces of Silver and Blowin' the Blues Away. All three are vivid examples of Silver's hard-bop genius and rhythmic brilliance. But for me, Horace-Scope has a little something extra—a passing gear, if you will. [Photo by Francis Wolff]
Horace-Scope didn't come easy. The date was recorded over two days (July 8th and 9th), and all of the tracks required double-digit takes. And no wonder. The melodies and executions are so tightly choreographed that it's remarkable that perfection was achieved on any of the takes. For instance, upward of 34 takes were required for Yeah and 38 attempts for Me and My Baby. The group had kicked off the session with Me and My Baby but its intricacies proved to be too much, and the song was tabled until the following day.
What makes Horace-Scope so interesting is the firmness of Silver's playing and sound of the group's front-line horns. Trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook had been with Silver along with bassist Gene Taylor since 1958. The compact feel of the ensemble along with its racehorse energy level is absolutely electrifying. [Photo of Junior Cook by Francis Wolff]
Silver co-founded the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey in 1954. Blakey had used the Jazz Messengers name for several recordings years earlier, and Silver and Blakey knew each other well by 1954. The pair first recorded together in 1952, on a Coleman Hawkins date for Spotlite Records and again in 1952, when Blakey appeared on the Horace Silver Trio album for Blue Note. When Silver and Blakey formed the Jazz Messengers in 1954, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley had already been playing with Silver at Minton's Playhouse. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham was recruited.
The Silver-Blakey Jazz Messengers lasted about a year and a half, recording its last date for Columbia in April 1956. By this time, Donald Byrd was in for Dorham, who had departed the group late in 1955. Soon after the Columbia recording, Silver also left to form his own hard-bop quintet.
Silver explained why in Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty, his autobiography (with Phil Pastras):
"I worked and traveled with the Jazz Messengers for about a year and a half before I left the band. I left not because I didn't like the music or because of any personal friction with anyone in the band. I left because of the drug addiction that was prevalent among the band members. Bassist Doug Watkins and I were the only ones that didn't have a drug habit.
"Almost everywhere we played, the vice squad came to check us out for drugs. I was always worried that they would catch one of the guys holding and we'd all get busted. It seemed the word had gone out from police department to police department in all major cities that the Jazz Messengers were drug addicts."
After Silver formed his own group, he recorded Silver's Blue and Six Pieces of Silver in 1956, The Stylings of Silver in 1957, Further Explorations in 1958, and Finger Poppin' and Blowin' the Blues Away in 1959. In between Silver freelanced as a sideman on numerous classic hard-bop dates.
Then came Horace-Scope. Dig the loping groove Silver gets into on Strollin'. Or the funky uptempo Ping Pong beat he launches on Where You At. As on most Silver albums, there's a gem of a ballad here, this time pianist Don Newey's humid Without You. Then Silver hits the gas with Horace-Scope, working his fiery solo methodically into a funk frenzy.
Yeah is a ferocious minor-major cooker and the album's high point. Me and My Baby is a taut gospel-funk blues, while Nica's Dream is taken at a brisker pace than the version recorded in 1956. The tempo and tune explode from the opening first notes. Mitchell's [pictured] and Cook's contributions to this album should not be overlooked or underestimated. They are so tightly in sync that it sounds as if the same person is simultaneously playing both instruments.
In 1960, Silver was at the height of his playing skills, battling Bobby Timmons and the Jazz Messengers for funk dominance. For my money, Horace-Scope is about as exciting as late-period hard bop gets.
JazzWax tracks: Horace-Scope is available as a download at iTunes or on CD here. I also recommend grabbing The Jazz Messengers from 1956 for contrast. The album is a masterpiece in so many ways. It, too, is available at iTunes or on CD here. My suggestion is to buy the CD for $6.99 just to read George Avakian's original liner notes and drummer Kenny Washington's updated notes in 1997. Blakey's drum solo on Hank's Symphony alone is worth the price of admission.
JazzWax clip: For a taste of how good Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook were together in the Horace Silver Quintet, here they are in 1958 on a swing through Holland. Fascinating how close Cook and Hank Mobley sounded, except that Cook was a little brighter in his phrasing and worked higher on the horn's register. And listen carefully to how intricate Silver's arrangement is here...