The Silver Messengers pays homage to jazz piano great, Horace Silver. Silver was a touchstone in the hard bop era of the 50s and 60s, joining the likes of Les McCann, Cannonball Adderley and Charles Mingus; among other innovations, hard bop incorporated the rhythms and the feeling of R&B and soul into the jazz canon.
Souza’s and Silver’s roots lie in Cabo Verde, the island conglomerate far off the coast of Sénégal in the Atlantic, uninhabited until discovery, in 1460, by the Portuguese and Italians, then colonized using African slaves brought in by the Portuguese who ruled until independence, in 1975. Offspring of a widespread Cabo Verdeano diaspora, Souza was born in Portugal, Silver in the United States. Because so many Cabo Verdeanos leave home forever, it is said that their lives and their art are inflected with a sense of saudad, or longing.
Souza’s beat, so to speak, is jazz; she has ten CD releases under her belt, primarily as a vocalist with a predilection for scatting, but she’s also a composer, guitarist and keyboardist. Souza’s partnership with bassist, arranger and producer Theo Pascal, beginning in 2003, has been fruitful and her star is rising, especially in Europe. Drummer/percussionist Elias Kacomanolis, and pianist Benjamin Burrell round out her current quartet.
“Song for my Father,” released in 1965, is a signature Silver tune and has been a mainstay of Souza’s repertoire for a number of years. Taken from a traditional Cabo Verdean melody, it’s quintessential Silverian hard bop, marked by imperiously bouncing bluesy chords, but wafted, too, on the then ascending wave of bossa nova, while offering a hook-y melody that doesn’t quit. The ensembles’ remake tosses in some tasty Caribbean percussion, while Souza scats on and around the melody, offering passages rendered in what sounds like (Cabo Verdean) Kriolu fed with coquettish, just plain pretty sounds. Burrell’s piano invokes nostalgia, grounding the song in Horace Silver’s very own chords.
Most scat singers use the technique to vaunt the elasticity, control, and quick thinking of their voice. Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross, and Bobby McFarrin come easily to mind. Souza seems more intent on playing coy and velvety with the sounds she hears landing on her palate/palette. She’s understated in one way, but marvelous in another, with her ofttimes craggy yet supple sounds, like a dancer walking on snow in fleece slippers.
“Cape Verdean Blues” gives us more golden Silver. Souza has fun with the tune, scatting in an off-beat, gentle cackle, or singing in sassy, slurred Kriolu. Adding to the fun is the cuica, on the scene from Brazil to mimic the voice that’s been, in turn, mimicking the cuica all along. Kacomanolis’ sticks, hitting the same syncopation as Roger Humphries’s original pushy high hat, set a tempered though to-be-reckoned-with groove. Burrell’s touch is generally more fluid, less percussive, more medium bop (to coin a term), but he has a good feel for Silver’s phrasing. Souza’s voice evidences a certain coppery ring to it from time to time, and that modest metallic chime brightens this tune in particular.
Souza and her ensemble lope into “Señor Blues,” a shuffling blues visualized by Silver’s lyrics that draw a Lothario who’s “tall and good lookin’” and “always knows just what to say.” Sounding like she’s known a Señor Blues or two, Souza reaches deeply and sensuously into her lower registers. After some woozy scatting, we’re convinced that Señor Blues is nothing but trouble. Burrell tacks closely to Silver’s repetitive chords, slowing the tune up a mite from the original, thus adding still more ooziness, and Souza, on guitar, reaches for bell-like and judiciously spaced chords, reminding me of Bill Frisell, while keeping it simple, as Horace Silver liked to do, too.
A eulogy, “Silver Blues,” composed by Pascal with Souza’s lyrics and vocals, neatly wraps this lovely package. Souza lauds Silver’s reputed good nature and his honesty, his musicianship that springs from a “peaceful soul.” She comes close to speaking the lyrics rather than singing them, and they read like a poem. Pascal’s arrangement is stripped down to mostly Souza’s voice with guitar and drum accents, leaving space for contemplation.
My first few run-throughs of The Silver Messengers were touchy. I kept wanting to go back to Silver's original recordings like The Cape Verdean Blues and Song for my Father. They were gospel in my youth, but she wasn’t taking me there. She was taking me to Carmen Souza in her own easy guise, not hard bop, but reminiscent, rhythmic sounds that easily rolled forth in reverence to a man who left us in 2014. They are lovely sounds that owe much to his legacy, while giving back to him in tribute. For this, these Silver Messengers, and I, are tinged with saudad.