Horace Silver's The United States Of Mind Trilogy
December 11 2012
A lot of ink’s been spilled, and many garments rent, over the rise of fusion and soul jazz in the late '60s and early '70s, especially in the context of its supplanting the hard bop tradition. While it's true that there were some radical changes in the crossover-friendly albums made by some of the bebop era's noted veterans—including Blue Note stalwarts like Donald Byrd, Grant Green and Lou Donaldson—they've held up far better than purists gave them credit for at the time. That could be attributed to the tastes of a '70s-baby generation reared on hip-hop, of course; a movement that valued the on-the-one impact of drum breaks and grooves from the JBs and Curtis Mayfield would naturally be inclined to have a similar affinity for jazz artists who met those funk visionaries at least halfway. But there's also something appealing in the idea of artists who were facing down their forties and fifties finding a way to translate their deep backgrounds into new styles that spoke to the times, while still keeping their music identifiably their own.
Few albums of the era stood out as starkly as Horace Silver's The United States of Mind trilogy. One of Blue Note's greatest talents as a player, a composer and a bandleader, Silver's turn to less doctrinaire forms of jazz was mirrored by his increasing interest in a broad-minded spirituality—particularly metaphysics and transcendental meditation. There were hints of this awareness in his earlier work; the liner notes of 1969's You Gotta Take a Little Love revealed themes of spiritual unity and mental healing in lyrics written, but not recorded, for the session. By 1970, at the start of a hiatus from live performance spurred by encroaching arthritis and the desire to take a break from the road after marriage, he made this philosophy the core of his next three albums. Between the new lyrical turn, the emphasis on vocals, and the prominent transition from traditional instruments to electric ones (including Silver's RMI Electra Piano), these albums were likely to startle or even alienate longtime listeners who swore by Blowin' the Blues Away or Song for My Father—not just back in 1970, but even today.
The first thing skeptical listeners should keep in mind when approaching The United States of Mind is that some of these songs might be hard to take entirely seriously at first: Not out of any failings of the music itself, necessarily, but due to all the cultural baggage that's accumulated in the last four decades where so-called New Age talk is concerned. But Silver's reacting to the turmoil of the late '60s with self-affirmations, conscious-minded ruminations and idealistic pleas for togetherness is more than just so much starry-eyed hippie naïvete. It's a genuine attempt to construct a new form of spiritual music—one that took ambivalence, empathy and often-secular concerns about the nature of self into account in the process of addressing what seemed to be a nationwide crisis of conscience.
Silver's lyrics are straightforward yet contemplative, convincingly heartfelt yet still concerned more with figuring things out than laying down authoritative answers. Songs like “The Happy Medium” (“I need someone to show me the road/To find a happy medium, to lighten my load”), “Acid, Pot or Pills” (“Where can I turn for the answers/Who can I look to for help/Isn't there some kind of guidance/Deep down within myself”), and “Who Has the Answer” (“As I begin to grow/My mind's not satisfied/With remnants of the truth that seem/Not fully justified”) are shot through with a sense of searching and questioning, as concerned with the route to inner peace as they are with the destination. The pull between existential confusion and personal happiness gives a real weight to the songs, even the catchier and more lighthearted ones like the simile-tweaking “What Kind of Animal Am I” or the vital-organ negotiations of “I've Had a Little Talk.”
And whether or not the words register in the literal sense, the performances sell them expertly. “Nobody Knows” features some of the silliest lyrics ever written about pornography (“People clad in nudity, as old as time and space/Will we keep our sanity, and exercise good taste”), but Gail Nelson's floaty, heavy-feather voice lands somewhere between vivid soul and cosmic ethereality in the process of turning it into something genuinely haunting. Andy Bey's performances are all astounding. His rich, nuanced turn on the revamped version of Silver's 1959 composition “Peace” is maybe the most affecting performance of anyone on any of the three albums, while his sister Salome's forceful, growling deep-blues delivery gives a punch to songs like “Soul Searchin'” and “My Soul is My Computer.” Silver himself even takes a couple turns at lead, and he's as matter-of-fact and arch with his voice as he is deft and intricate with his piano—more conversational than melodic, but with a witty sense of timing and rhythm. (When he really lets loose, though, as on “Horn of Life,” it's real knock-you-upside-your-head stuff.)
All three records in the trilogy—That Healin' Feelin', Total Response and All—were recorded over a 22-month span, with the core of the series' main incarnation of his Quintet/Sextet forming during the second LP's sessions. Not that That Healin' Feelin' is the odd record out; Silver's vision of a pop-friendly yet still spiritual and jazz-based sound was integral to the sessions from the word go, and he already had the singers in place. The first album's players did a solid job of setting the scene: whether flügelhornist Randy Brecker was paired with George Coleman or Houston Person on tenor sax, the horn section was adventurously expressive, while drummer Idris Muhammad and electric bassist Jimmy Lewis set a solid standard for playing off Silver's tinny but lively electric piano. The other rhythm section on That Healin' Feelin', bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Mickey Roker, filled out the other half of the sessions, and when the rest of the players were assembled for the subsequent albums—Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet and flügelhorn, Harold Vick on tenor sax, and Richie Resnicoff on guitar—they found themselves up to the task of pulling off an ambitiously idiosyncratic body of work. Check out the no-nonsense funk of “Big Business,” the breezy bop of “Old Mother Nature Calls,” and the bluesy gospel inflections of “Cause and Effect,” and you'll get a good sense of the flexible versatility these musicians were capable of.
Still, these were divisive records, something Silver took into account and carried with him for a long time. In a 1981 interview with Bob Rosenbaum, he admits that “I had a sort of feeling I could only go so far with my metaphysical concept in music. Because if I went too far, what [Blue Note] would consider overboard—which wouldn't be overboard to me at all—I might not only turn them off or ostracize the company from myself but maybe even turn some of my fans off, you know. So I tried to dish it out in small doses...not too much at one time.” Even though the albums' one-a-year pace parceled out his radical shift in gradual doses, and even though 1972's follow-up In Pursuit of the 27th Man marked a deliberate return to a somewhat more traditionally characteristic instrumental combo, the United States of Mind albums left a certain impression of out-there strangeness. Yet whatever status these LPs (which have been reissued as a two-CD set) hold in his catalog as odd left-field experiments or contentious digressions in a long career should be outweighed by the reality of just what it meant for him to record them. “People are afraid to know the other part of themselves,” Silver stated in the Rosenbaum interview. “And it's really silly, because there's nothing to be afraid of. It's fun, and it's enlightening and uplifting, and it does wonders for the person who gets involved in that other part of themselves, you know.”
Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images