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Jazz: Silver and Coleman

“It’s a heckuva matchup, to say the least,” laughs trumpeter Dave Douglas, the guest artist and coach for The Music of Horace Silver and Ornette Coleman, the Juilliard Jazz Ensembles’ November 3 concert. Douglas (right), a famed performer and onetime artistic director of jazz and creative music at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, is well aware that the pairing of work by Silver and Coleman, two recently departed jazz icons, presents an opportunity to get beyond surface differences in musical philosophy and illuminate something fundamental about jazz. “They’re two giant figures in American music,” he explains, “distinctive composer-instrumentalists who approached the performance of their work in very different ways. However, if we look past what I’ll call the common stereotypes of Ornette as wild and expressionistic and Horace as sort of downhome and gospel-centered, commonalities emerge. Ornette’s roots are in Texas blues, for example, which were pretty raw and at the same time not that far way from the gospel-driven, funky structures we associate with Horace Silver.”

Dave Douglas
(Photo by Austin Nelson)

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Douglas is uniquely suited to explore this common ground. He has been a leading figure of the contemporary jazz avant-garde since the late ’90s, following a path that the work of Coleman—a lightning rod of post-bop abstraction—made possible. But Douglas also toured with Silver as a rookie trumpeter making his way into the New York jazz scene in the late ’80s. He remembers playing the pianist’s hit “Song for My Father,” a touchstone of jazz history, nightly. “Horace was looking for the soloist to interact with the composition in a very horizontal, chordal way,” Douglas explains. “The voicings you used, the lines you played, were all steeped in the harmonies offered by a tune’s chords. Coleman, on the other hand, was looking for a process whereby the improviser was constantly creating new melodies while soloing, which would in turn offer up their own harmonies as the player went along.”

Just under 60 years ago, when the styles of music performed by Coleman and Silver were at opposite ends of a contentious jazz world, the mere idea of the two coexisting was fraught. Coleman’s “Humpty Dumpty” and Silver’s “Tippin’,” two pieces on the November 3 concert that employ a similar bluesy melodic bounce, have probably never been performed on the same bill. Each composition on the program was arranged by a student in the ensemble. “Back when many of these tunes were being developed, there was this real pull to choose one side or the other, which quite thankfully doesn’t exist anymore,” Douglas said. “All these years later, it’s possible to see it all in a bigger context.”

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