Friday, March 13, 2009

Horace Silver: The Blue Note Years

Let's talk about record covers.

As part of his ongoing periodic exploration of jazz he doesn't know (which is still basically of it), the Tanuki recently decided to pick up a Horace Silver compilation. How does one choose a compilation? By what you know, is one way to do it. The Tanuki knew just enough of Horace Silver to know about three songs he definitely wanted ("Song For My Father," "Filthy McNasty," and "Nica's Dream"). That settled it, because only one comp had all three, a Japanese import called The Blue Note Years, part of a 20-disc series of anthologies of Blue Note artists released in Japan in 2004.

Now if you're at all into jazz and you've traveled, you quickly realize that some other countries pay a lot more attention to jazz than the U.S. does. This is certainly the case in Japan, where the classic American jazz labels' back catalogs often receive more respect (i.e. more and better reissues) than they do Stateside.

That's definitely the case with the Horace Silver disc in question. Musically, I think it's a better selection, and a fuller disc, than what I saw available domestically, but you can always debate track listings. What we're here to discuss is the cover, and the Japanese disc wins there hands down, and in a way that tells you about the respective attitudes.

The thing about Blue Note is that in their heyday they had an impeccable design sense. Some of the most evocative jazz photography ever, combined with innovative approaches to typography and sleeve design, made them pretty much the index of cool in the '50s and early '60s. This Japanese comp respects that. Note first the photo: black and white, in the best Blue Note tradition. Horace hunched over the piano, gazing off to the side, tie loose and hair in his eyes, looking young, earnest, and hip. He's subtly reflected in the piano lid; some sheet music (?) is blurry in the foreground, and the background is pleasantly nondescript. It's a fine photo, telling you that here's an artist who's both casual and dignified, hard-working and laid-back. Or something. Superimposed on the bottom right corner of the photo is the Blue Note logo, and at the bottom is a strip of turquoise with the artist's name and the title of the disc. The color is restful, and the strip is wide enough to be bold but thin enough to avoid overpowering the photo. The whole thing is evocative of the fine visual traditions of Blue Note.

Now let's look at what's available domestically. There's a four-disc set that's pretty attractive, but I want to confine this discussion to apples and apples: single-disc comps. The most widely-available one seems to be this 1990 disc called The Best Of Horace Silver. It's subtitled The Blue Note Years, but the tracklisting is different from the Japanese edition.

Again, though, let's forget about the tracks and look at the cover. The photo is nice enough; maybe not as attractive as the one on the Japanese comp, because Silver's expression is less complex, less intriguing; but nice enough. But the photo is overwhelmed by the color band that half frames it on the top and left. But the real problem is the lettering. Why is the S in Silver so damned big? Why is it alone given a white shadow? Why is Silver written with caps-and-lowercase when everything else on the cover is written in all caps or small caps? Above all, why are they using a serif typeface (a very serif typeface) when Blue Note was known for its sans-serif? The kicker is that uneven strip of dark blue at the very top. It's not quite a fade, not quite a stroke of paint or a piece of torn paper: what is it? And why is it there?

In short, the message this composition sends is confused. It's off balance, but not in a pleasing way, and it doesn't send a confident aesthetic message. It's not cool, and it never was, not even in 1990. But it looks like it might have been trying to be cool in 1990, and that's the problem. It suggests a crisis in confidence - a desperation. The very opposite of what the Japanese cover suggests.

There was a sequel to the 1990 disc, and it's even worse. Same layout, but an even less impressive photo, and now the half-frame is two-tone, with an awful peach color. The less said here the better.

There's a newer disc, but it doesn't seem to be that easy to find. It's on the big river site, but it doesn't come up early in your Horace Silver search. It's Horace Silver The Very Best, and its cover suffers from similar problems to the 1990 design. This is not an unattractive cover, although it has its puzzling elements. Why the almost psychedelic yellow-to-pink fade? Why is the photo treated so heavily? Why the cowboy movie font? But most of all, why doesn't this look in any way like a Blue Note record? No Blue Note logo on the front, an even more serify font, wacky colors, and photo that distances us from the artist. Once again we have a total lack of confidence in the whole proposition, a desperate attempt to appeal to clueless kids with a contemporary look, or a lame facsimile thereof.

Okay, so here's "Nica's Dream." And here's United Future Organization's version.

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