[7 February 2008]
To literary giant and sometimes music critic Ralph Ellison, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was an unmitigated disaster. Even though such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Thelonius Monk headlined the festival, Ellison found the two-day event despicable. “Taste,” the writer informed his dear friend Albert Murray, “was an item conspicuously missing from most of the performances.” A perturbed Ellison viewed the festival as an ominous sign of a dark future for the world of jazz; but in the eyes of many critics and fans, the historic event was a shining moment in American music history. On two glorious summer days, a talented group of musicians, ranging from fiery rocker Chuck Berry to jazz’s budding superstar, Miles Davis, provided an inspiring portrait of the past and future of American music.
The 1958 festival was an event most of the attendees would never forget. Neither would music lovers and critics born long after the historic gathering. Thanks largely to Bert Stern’s popular documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day and the continued availability of many of the artists’ performances, the Newport Jazz Festival of 1958 still occupies an important place not only in jazz lore but in the American cultural imagination.
Love for the festival will undoubtedly increase with the release of Horace Silver’s Live at Newport ’58. Like the highly acclaimed Thelonius Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and Charles Mingus’ Cornel 1964, this almost forgotten recording comes to us as a result of Blue Note Records’ recent digs through the Library of Congress music vaults. Exactly how and why a great performance from one of the most commercially viable artists in jazz is lost or misplaced for nearly half a century totally escapes me, but thanks to Michael Cuscuna’s 2006 discovery, jazz enthusiasts, music lovers, and diehard Horace Silver fans can experience a brilliant composer at the top of his game.
Spectacular from start to finish, Live at Newport ‘58 features Silver on piano, Louis Smith on trumpet, bassist Gene Taylor, drummer Louis Haynes and the wonderful Junior Cook on tenor saxophone. Taylor and Smith had only been in the group for a couple of months, but they delivered masterful performances. Everything you’d expect from a Horace Silver Blue Note recording can be found on this live set: brilliant compositions, impassioned playing and strong group interplay.
Capturing the quintet at its creative best, the disc opens with the ferocious “Tippin”. This swinging tune from Silver’s breakout album, 6 Pieces of Silver, finds the quintet playing with great power, feeling and finesse. Full of passion and fire, Silver’s individual flights sparkle with intelligence and vitality. If there were any doubts about Silver’s mastery of jazz, blues, and gospel piano, his stunning solo at the five minute-mark erases them all in dramatic fashion. Equally impressive is drummer Louis Haynes, who beautifully accents and completes his leader’s musical thoughts.
Not letting up on their intensity, the Horace Silver Quintet rips through the next tune, “The Outlaw”. On this Latin-tinged number, trumpeter Louis Smith turns in a splendid performance. Three minutes into the song, the Georgia native delivers an avalanche of sweet yet powerful notes, gliding from swing to hard bebop. Smith’s extended solo is a wonderful set-up for Silver, who proceeds to swing effortlessly from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll to soul. One gets the sense that Silver’s solos had both entertainment and educational purposes, that the gifted pianist wanted to give the festival’s audience and participants a lesson on how jazz, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll derived from the same blues roots.
Saving the more popular tunes for last, Silver closes the show with “Senor Blues” and “Cool Eyes”. Loud applause greets the quintet during the opening notes of “Senor Blues”, a popular song which cemented Silver as a composer to be reckoned with in the world of jazz. Once again, he pleases the crowd with an exquisite solo that deconstructs the melody with the fine precision of a composer who knows his music inside and out. Ending on an energetic note, the quintet closes the show with “Cool Eyes”, a swinging be-bop number which should be familiar to many Silver fans.
Considering the fact that Doin’ the Thing At the Village Gate had previously been the only live disc in Horace Silver’s extensive and impressive catalogue, the release of Live at Newport ’58 will not only please thousands of music fans, but will shed important light on one of the most important figures, and moments, in jazz history.