Age has never been anything except a number in jazz and blues circles; musicians routinely perform for most of their lives, never considering retirement unless forced to by physical ailments or illness. Currently, such venerable citizens as Lionel Hampton (90), John Lee Hooker (79), and B.B. King (74) continue to tour and record at a pace that would exhaust performers half their agesand they continue to try different concepts or work with younger musicians. But Hampton, Hooker, and King are hardly the only elders working the jazz and blues circuit; pianists Jay McShann and Horace Silver are two more examples of longtime first-rate players who not only remain active, but continue to thrive.
In the ’30s, McShannwho’s now either 83 or 90, depending on whose source material you believehelped forge the synthesis of bawdy blues and fierce horn arrangements that ultimately became known as “jump” blues. A self-taught pianist from Oklahoma, he settled in Kansas City in 1936, after working with saxophonist Don Byas and touring the Midwest. Though not a sterling soloist, McShann established himself as a brilliant accompanist, particularly skilled at filling in spaces underneath soloists and at opening and concluding compositions. He formed a big band in 1936, and among his earliest recruits was a supremely talented but woefully inexperienced alto saxophonist named Charlie Parker. McShann’s tutelage, coupled with the wide-open dueling atmosphere of late-’30s and early-’40s Kansas City cutting contests, helped Parker develop a virtuoso style and stamped McShann among the genre’s greatest bandleaders and accompanists.
From the ’40s into the early ’50s, McShann was both a celebrity and a vital figure, but things dried up in the mid-’50s. He was subsequently “rediscovered” in 1969, working in a tiny Kansas City club. Since then, he’s seldom been inactive, working festivals all over the world and recording periodically for a host of labels, among them New World, Sackville, Black & Blue, Storyville, and Black Lion. He made one exciting LP for Atlantic in 1977, The Last of the Blue Devils (newly reissued by Koch), but has mostly toiled for independent companies.
McShann’s newest effort, Still Jumpin’ the Blues (Stony Plain), serves as a textbook example of his musical abilities. His voice may be a bit weary, but McShann shows he can still wail, moan, and lament with conviction on chestnuts like “Goin’ to Chicago” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” He’s backed by the Duke Robillard Band, arguably the top swing and jump combo now active. Besides Robillard’s tart, agile guitar work, the band offers booming sax solos from Nashville’s Dennis Taylor on tenor and Doug James on baritone, along with sassy guest vocals from Maria Muldaur on Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” and “Trouble in Mind,” the song that made onetime McShann cohort Julia Lee a sensation in 1944. A bonus 17-minute interview and medley nicely wraps the date. While McShann isn’t going to bowl anyone over with his technique, he can still turn a phrase and drive a band.
Horace Silver didn’t invent hard bop, but he was certainly there at its beginning. As a high-school pianist in his Norwalk, Conn., hometown, Silver eagerly absorbed the sounds of boogie-woogie and blues, blending these into a loose, highly rhythmic personal style that also reflected the influence of Cape Verdean folk music, which he heard from his Portuguese-born father. Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, a notoriously tough critic, used Silver as part of a pickup band for a 1950 concert and immediately hired him on the spot. After a year with Getz, Silver moved on to gigs with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Oscar Pettiford, before cutting his first LP for Blue Note with Lou Donaldson in 1952.
Silver’s extensive knowledge of blues and his desire to communicate with audiences led him to question jazz’s direction at the time. He felt the music was growing more esoteric and insider-oriented, losing the energy and sense of adventure that had previously characterized it. While working with drummer Art Blakey in 1953, the two discussed forming a repertory band that would, in their words, “preach the jazz message.” For the next 25 years, both in and out of his Jazz Messengers ensemble, Silver espoused the virtues of his philosophy through his compositions and pianistic approach. His songs were famous for their brilliant juxtaposition of catchy melodies and robust solos, and his bands included a host of eventual jazz luminaries (Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, Randy and Michael Brecker, Bennie Maupin, Woody Shaw, and Junior Cook among many others).
Indeed, Silver ranks with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus among modern jazz’s finest composers; “Sister Sadie,” “Song for My Father,” “Cape Verdean Blues,” “The Jody Grind,” and “Serenade to a Soul Sister” are just a handful of songs that are now established standards. Silver has remained so concerned about audience interaction over the years that he has often flirted with styles like fusion, pop, and rocknone of which he does nearly as well as hard bop.
Silver left Blue Note in 1979 and for the past two decades has recorded for companies both large (Columbia) and tiny (his own short-lived Silveto label). His newest venture, Jazz Has a Sense of Humor (Verve), carefully straddles the fence between self-indulgence and accessibility. The current band includes one great player (trumpeter Ryan Kisor), a solid tenor and soprano saxophonist (Jimmy Greene), and the competent but unexciting rhythm section of bassist John Webber and drummer Willie Jones III. While Kisor and Greene’s contributions are dynamic, what’s supporting them is basic mainstream filler, well-structured but imminently forgettable.
The 71-year-old Silver remains a remarkably nimble player; his leaps across the keyboard on “Philley Millie” and his beautiful phrasing and melodic explorations on “Gloria” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” are the work of a master. He doesn’t try to overwhelm with flurries of notes, and he never rushes through ideas in his solos. Though he doesn’t offer the flourishes that were the highlight of his playing on “Song for My Father” or “Cape Verdean Blues,” Silver’s abilities nevertheless remain unquestioned. What’s missing is the fire during the ensemble exchanges; Kisor and Greene are more intense than the leader, which is a major departure from Silver’s past sessions.
Even with occasional defects, these releases by Jay McShann and Horace Silver retain a freshness and spontaneity that prove both men are great musicians unwilling to settle for mere rehashes of past glory. If they sometimes fall short, far more often they continue to represent jazz and blues music at its best.
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace