Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

01/22/2014

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis – trumpet
Wayne Shorter – soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin – electric guitar
Chick Corea – electric piano
Herbie Hancock – electric piano
Joe Zawinul – organ
Dave Holland – double bass
Tony Williams – drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.