Pianist Horace Silver hasn’t performed in public for years. Betty Carter, Pepper Adams, Clifford Brown, Ray Brown and Donny Hathaway have been dead as long as a half-century.
But their music — and thoughts on their music — will be at center stage over the weekend of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Some events revisit the artistry and marquee value of some of the biggest names in jazz history. Silver, a giant on several counts, cut some of jazz’s biggest hits of the ’60s; Donny Hathaway hit the upper reaches of the pop and R&B charts in the late ’70s. Less well known beyond jazz, trumpeter Clifford Brown, vocalist Betty Cater and bassist Ray Brown redefined the possibilities of their instruments. In contrast, the tribute to Detroit baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams is a bid to put a musician’s musician front and center as he’s never been before.
For pianist-composer Michael Weiss, his Silver tribute means coming full-circle to his introduction to jazz as a teenager in the 1970s at Interlochen. Back home in Dallas, a music teacher assigned him Horace Silver’s "Sister Sadie" as a transcription exercise: "It’s like the first word of any language that you learn, that’s the sound that stays with you the longest."
A short recap of the career that followed includes major sideman gigs (most notably with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin) before setting off as a composer-leader on his own. But a couple years ago he put together a nightclub project with Silver alums, which leads to the current quintet project with ex-Silver sideman Randy Brecker on trumpet and talented younger cats like saxophonist Wayne Escoffery.
An entire program could easily be assembled around Silver’s biggest hits, such as the aforementioned "Sister Sadie," "The Preacher" and "Song for My Father" (whose bass motif anchored Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don’t Lose That Number").
But Weiss said he "might" play a hit or two among lesser known pieces emphasizing the sophistication and compositional "detailing that goes on underneath."
"With Horace’s music, it’s not just about the melody and the chord changes, there’s very careful care given to a lot of other components, the arrangement and the introductions and endings, and backgrounds, shout choruses, harmony versus unison, different parts that each musician plays," Weiss continues. "There’s nothing generic."
And Silver’s success, Weiss muses, may be attributable to melodies that communicate simply, but behind that "veneer of simplicity … a lot of complexity on the subliminal level."
Weiss’ project is one of many Horace Silver tributes over the years, but the Pepper Adams tribute is a first for the largely unheralded "John Coltrane of the baritone sax" — as his biographer and tribute organizer Gary Carner puts it. There were benefits in his name when he was battling cancer in New York, but there’s never been such a celebration of his music and life.
During his years on the scene, from the 1950s until his death in 1986, Adams, and every other baritone saxophonist, played in the shadow of Gerry Mulligan, a cool-school star who seemed to make the low horn float.
Since then, Adams’ hard-edged style has become the style. "Everybody sounds like him now — nobody sounds like Mulligan," says Carner in a phone conversation, noting Adams’ nickname: "The Knife."
Gary Smulyan, who later held Adams’ seat in the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones Orchestra, wrote in an e-mail that "Pepper’s playing contained everything essential in a great improviser: a keen harmonic sense, a personal sound, a strong rhythmic concept, a sure-footed sense of time, and, in Pepper’s case, an intelligent sense of humor."
Moreover, Adams’ story cuts across the equator of the jazz world. His formative musical years were in the Detroit bop scene around now-legendary spots like the Bluebird Inn, arguably the best musical scene in the country in the 1950s. After moving to New York he played with old Detroit bandmates like Donald Byrd and Thad Jones, but also with leaders from Monk to Mingus to Goodman. "If you look at the records, the people he plays with are just astounding," says Carner, who has two Adams books in the works and four CDs of Adams compositions, featuring Smulyan among others, in the can.
Saturday’s program reprises some of those and features Smulyan alongside Barry Harris, one of the central figures of Adams’ Detroit years.
For some, the emphasis on tributes has a downside. Like symphonies continuing the program Mozart and Haydn, "it doesn’t do much to move the music forward," says Weiss, especially from the standpoint of someone like himself fighting for opportunities to get his own music heard.
"That’s an artist’s point of view," counters Carner, "I’m a historian, so I’m going to look at the entire history."
But as in any classic art form, the balance of history and looking future is always an issue.
Gary Carner speaks on Adams at 12:15 p.m. Saturday in the Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent, and joins a panel with Gary Smulyan, Barris Harris and moderator W. Kim Heron at 1:30 p.m. in the tent. Smulyan and Adams perform in the Adams tribute "Hot Pepper" at 6:30 p.m. at the Mack Avenue Pyramid Stage. On Sunday, Michael Weiss is part of a Horace Silver discussion at 1 at the tent and performs his Silver tribute with Brecker at 4:30 p.m. at the Pyramid. Full schedule at detroitjazzfest.com.W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org