“In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis (1969)
The Miles Quintet of the mid-1960s ranks among jazz’s most heralded aggregations, along with John Coltrane’s Impulse!-era quartet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Davis’ own five-piece from a decade before.
Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and the late Tony Williams jelled together playing primarily standards and hard bop, as captured on the quintet’s Plugged Nickel recordings from late 1965. But in a manner similar to other musicians of the period, Davis began to shift the emphasis toward harder-edged arrangements, integrating elements that shared structure with rock music.
The release of “Filles de Kilimanjaro” in 1968 showed Davis leaning squarely in that direction, with the compositions “Frelon Brun” and “Mademoiselle Mabry” among the early example of what later would be coined jazz-rock fusion.
As the sessions for “Filles de Kilimanjaro” gave way to those for a follow-up album, Davis began playing with some of jazz’s top names, who would go on to become fusion legends: guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and keyboard players Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. McLaughlin had moved from his native England to play in Williams’ group, Lifetime, and Miles was so impressed on hearing the guitarist that he immediately invited him to record.
The results hardly pleased jazz purists, who probably had hoped Davis would stick with bop instead of progressing toward other musical forms, like Coltrane and others had done with “New Thing” free jazz. Miles’ music certainly wasn’t as atonal as the New Thing, but it hardly sounded like what he had done in the ’50s.
The “In a Silent Way” LP features one two-part composition on each side, “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” with Zawinul sharing songwriting credits with Davis on the latter. Going into the finished product was a great deal of editing by producer Teo Macero, as By Paul Tingen wrote in “The Making of In A Silent Way & Bitches Brew”:
“His influence in Miles’s music can be likened to that of George Martin with The Beatles. Macero was the one who tied the many disparate musical segments together, and edited them into a new whole, in some cases virtually recomposing the music. In A Silent Way, for instance, contained less than 27 minutes of musical material in its pre-edited form, and was cleverly looped by Macero to extend the music to 38 minutes.”
The result is a steadily paced, fascinating flow of music, opening with Zawinul’s electric piano, Corea’s organ and McLaughlin’s guitar setting an easy tone. After a few minutes, Davis plays the main theme of “Shhh,” carefully phrasing the melody on his trumpet as the other musicians continuing in a modal style, with no chord changes.
McLaughlin takes a relatively low-key solo, compared with much of his later work, starting at about the six-minute mark. As Zawinul noted in Tingen’s article: “He (Davis) told John McLaughlin to play as if he didn’t know how to play the guitar. As a result John’s playing was among the best of his career.”
Shorter then takes his turn, overlaying a continuous descending piano pattern, as Williams and Holland maintain the rhythm in an earnest but relaxed manner. McLaughlin returns for some more tasteful guitar before the main theme comes back into play.
The second composition begins with McLaughlin playing an ethereal theme backed by a sprinkling of keyboards and Holland’s droning bass. Davis joins in, playing the same somber style, until the 4:11 mark, when the full band backs a relatively fluid trumpet solo.
The dual composition, and perhaps the entire album, coalesce around 12 minutes in, when Miles blows freely over full-volume accompaniment, demonstration the vast potential for fusion. The piece ends with a reprise of the dulcet tones of the opening, with Davis fully setting the tone with his empathetic work on the horn.
“In a Silent Way” lays the groundwork for a series of Miles Davis recordings that push the envelope, eventually transcending jazz, rock, funk or whatever label you might want to place on his music. By the time he “retired” in 1975, Miles and his band were playing fully improvised shows at blaring volume, with the band leader turning his back on the audience to concentrate on creating new revelations with each performance.
Jazz, in its basic form, is supposed to be all about capturing the moment. And Miles Davis certainly answered the bell in that regard.