Born on January 22, 1939, in Bermuda and raised in Harlem, New York City. Education: Studied with trumpeter Donald Byrd and double bassist Ali Richardson; attended Columbia University. Addresses: Record company--Eremite Records, website: http://www.eremite.com.
A free jazz and improvisational musician, American composer/orchestral leader Alan Silva is a master of numerous instruments, among them the violin, cello, synthesizer, piano, and, especially, the double bass. His performances and recordings as a bassist, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, are legendary. During this period, he helped record some of the most explorative releases in improvised music, working with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, Bill Dixon, Frank Wright, Andrew Hill, and Jimmy Lyons. In 1969 he founded his own ensemble, the Celestial Communication Orchestra, organized sessions for smaller group settings, and tried his decidedly uncompromising, fresh approach to music on other instruments, most recently the keyboards.
A British citizen prior to the age of 18, Alan Silva was born in Bermuda on January 22, 1939. His father was originally from Africa, while his mother was a native of Portugal. At age five, he relocated with his family to the New York, spending the remainder of his childhood in Harlem. Influenced by the rich musical culture of the neighborhood, Silva collected jazz recordings and, because he was too young to attend club performances, listened to bebop on the radio. Around 1950 he started taking piano and drum lessons from various musicians who enjoyed the same style. "The Ellington band played our church when I was 12," he recalled in an interview with Dan Warburton for the Wire magazine. "Harlem was progressive--I hate people describing it as a ghetto. There were rent parties, events at church and dancing: you had to dance, to Latin bands as well as bebop."
In the mid-1950s, Silva managed to sneak his way into a jam session featuring one of his favorite artists, Donald Byrd, and asked the renowned trumpeter for private lessons. He bought a trumpet from a pawn shop, began studies with Byrd, and attended several of his mentor's recording sessions. Although both Silva and his teacher eventually realized he would never become a great trumpet player, he remained a pupil of Byrd's for five years.
At age 19 he enrolled at Columbia University to pursue a degree in music education. As a student there he was greatly influenced by the teachings of musicologist Alan Lomax and grew increasingly interested in the concept of collective improvisation, rejecting the idea of prescribed notation. "I believe improvisation is one of the oldest forms of organization," said Silva, as quoted on Vanita and Joe Monks Monastery Bulletin website. "Probably language, poetry, storytelling, all aspects of life is [sic] improvised."
At 23 Silva started studying double bass under the instruction of Ali Richardson. A regular piano-bar player in Greenwich Village, Richardson sparked Silva's interest in the free jazz movement and the music of George Russell, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman. Soon Silva began to distance himself from bebop, a form in which he now believed individual solos were given too much importance. After this, conventional solos never appeared in Silva's own compositions and arrangements; even as leader, he made no exceptions for himself. His goal was to capture the personality of the ensemble as a whole, not unlike the vision of the emerging free jazz leaders. "Ornette was moving outside the system, proposing collective improvisation without piano," he recalled to Warburton. In addition to free jazz musicians, he took notice of other important figures of varied backgrounds such as John Cage, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Ravi Shankar.
In 1962, while living in Brooklyn, Silva formed his first group, the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble (FFIE). Members of the collective included pianist Burton Greene, flutist Jon Winter, saxophonist Gary Friedman, trumpeter Eddie Gale, and drummer Clarence Walker. The FFIE's first significant break occurred two years after its formation when Greene secured the group a spot at Norman Seaman's 1964 New Music Festival at New York's Town Hall. Afterwards, trumpeter Bill Dixon invited the members to join the Jazz Composers Guild alongside the likes of Paul and Carla Bley, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Mike Mantler, and Taylor.
Although the guild dissolved, reportedly because Shepp signed with Impulse! Records, Silva continued to work extensively with its former members. He joined Taylor for the demanding 1966 releases Unit Structures and Conquistador, remaining on and off with the pianist's ensemble until 1969. He also played with Sun Ra from 1965 until 1970 and Albert Ayler, from 1966 until 1970. In 1968 Silva stayed in Paris for several months, playing dates with Sunny Murray, Bernard Vitet, and others. He returned to New York in 1969 to found another group, the Celestrial Communication Orchestra (CCO) and that summer joined Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, Clifford Thornton, Dave Burrell, and Murray for a performance at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers. The performance was released under the title Live at the Pan-African Festival on the BYG label.
In 1970 Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra released its first effort, Luna Surface. The album followed by a three-record set called Seasons that had been recorded in December of 1970. According to Eremite Records, this compilation is "universally regarded as one of the high water marks in avant-garde jazz" and a prime example of Silva's harmonic concepts. The solos, explained Silva to Warburton, "came naturally out of the primordial sound. Solos were free but had to stay within a certain range so as not to get in the way of each other--what I call 'strata harmony,' a range determined by the note you were playing in the chord. The last section is the densest piece I've ever done, based on trills, with an electroacoustical texture beneath to set up the vibrations. When I heard the tapes, I insisted they release it all, as a triple album."
Subsequently, the Royan Contemporary Music Festival commissioned Silva for its 1971 season. The result, My Country, issued on Leo Records, further solidified Silva's reputation as a composer and orchestra leader. He was, however, unable to hold the large ensemble together. After its dissolution, he briefly worked with Frank Wright's group, Center of the World, then decided to take a break from performing and recording. Because of his interest in music education, in 1975 he cofounded the Institut Art Culture Perception (IACP) in Paris, where he taught improvisation.
While not as active publicly in the 1980s, he appeared on record with Taylor, Andrew Hill, Bill Dixon, and others. He also teamed on cello with percussionist Roger Turner for the 1986 album Take Some Risks. Over time Silva appeared ambivalent about his role as a double bassist, often claiming to have lost his interest in playing the instrument. Upon his return in the 1990s, in fact, he abandoned it in favor of keyboards, on which he experimented with technology and multimedia projects. Beginning with 1993's In the Tradition through 2002's Tone, both trio dates with percussionist Roger Turner and trombonist Johannes Bauer, Silva refrained from playing double bass. Questioned about this decision, he insists that tapes of work on his primary instrument are ready for release; quite possibly, these will surface as soon as colleagues and fans stop asking if his double bass has disappeared forever.
by Laura Hightower
Alan Silva's Career
Founded the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, 1962; founded the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, 1969; recorded Seasons, 1970; founded the Institut Art Culture Perception, 1975; recorded mainly on keyboards, 1990s-.
- Selected discography
- Alan Silva and the Sound Visions Orchestra Eremite, 2001.
- With Celestial Communication Orchestra
- Lunar Surface BYG, 1969.
- Seasons BYG, 1972.
- Desert Mirage IACP, 1982.
- My Country Leo, 1989.
- With others
- (With Bobby Few and Frank Wright) Duos 1975.
- (With Burton Greene and Sunny Marry) Firmanence Fore, 1979.
- (With Roger Turner) Take Some Risks IACP, 1986.
- (With Roger Turner and Johannes Bauer) In the Tradition In Situ, 1993.
- (With Oluyemi Thomas) Transmissions Eremite, 2001.
- (With Roger Turner and Johannes Bauer) Tone FMP, 2002.
- Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, editors, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Penguin, 1998.
- Wire, February 2003.
- "Alan Silva & Oluyemi Thomas: Transmissions (Eremite)," One Final Note, http://www.onefinalnote.com/issue6/silva.html (August 22, 2003).
- "Alan Silva/Oluyemi Thomas: Transmissions," Jazz Weekly, http://www.jazzweekly.com/reviews/asilva_transmissions.htm (August 22, 2003).
- "Alan Silva & the Sound Visions Orchestra," Eremite Records, http://www.eremite.com (August 22, 2003).
- "Alan Silva Wants His MTV," Vanita & Joe Monks Monastery Bulletin, http://www.monastery.nl/bulletin/silva/silva.html (August 22, 2003).
- "Silva/Jordan/Parker: Emancipation Suite ♯1," Jazz Review, BBC Music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/jazz/reviews/silva_emancipation.shtml (August 22, 2003).