In A Silent Way is a work of genius, a unique piece of music created out of almost nothing. It was the product of an inspired collective of musicians and engineers, all steered in some mysterious way by Miles Davis, whose own performance on the piece was itself almost laughably brief.
On the Complete In a Silent Way sessions it's possible to hear the original material from which producer Teo Macero pruned, cut, shuffled and repeated segments of the originally recorded sessions – seen as so unpromising by the musicians concerned that some failed even to recognise their own work when they first heard the released LP. The first segment was originally intended to be a conventional long jam titled Mornin’ Fast Train From Memphis To Harlem, but Davis and Macero found the session too languid and instead adopted a radical edit/loop strategy to assemble the final album.
In A Silent Way consists of two long, impressionistic pieces, each divided into a central jam and two identical book-ends. It's best heard in one sitting; the restlessness of Shhh/Peaceful sets up a mood which is resolved by In a silent way/It's about that time.
In approaching this 1969 release for the first time, it’s best to not expect much connection to either Miles's acoustic quintet work or to his subsequent jazz-rock phase. The album should be seen as a one-off, whose nearest reference points are early Weather Report and Miles's later ambient pieces, such as 1970's Lonely Fire or 1974's He Loved Him Madly. It's neither jazz, rock, nor jazz fusion; instead it must be considered in a genre entirely of its own.
Opener Shhh/Peaceful has the effect of an incredibly intricate tableau; it's hard to grasp on one listening and can initially seem slight and listless. Its riches are only gradually revealed as one becomes aware of the countless resonances within the music. Miles's luminous grace, Tony Williams's fantastically delicate ostinato, McLaughlin's tentative, fractured solo, and Wayne Shorter's groove oriented, lyrical work on soprano saxophone come into focus first. Repeated listenings allow attention to wander beyond the foreground- Zawinul's moody swirls on organ, the constant to-and-fro of chatter between Corea and Hancock, Holland's breathy vamp on double bass, Macero's loops which give the music an endless quality. Yet there's the feeling of something left unsaid; a mood is being set up which will be decisively altered.
The zen-like In A Silent Way fragment was a composition Joe Zawinul had brought to the session. Miles ended up using it after Joe had left the studio and it wasn't credited on the original release, which soured relations between the two for a while. It became one of the most celebrated pieces of music Miles ever recorded, though its fame possibly detracts from the album as a whole.
Scrapping Zawinul's lush arrangement (the original conception can be heard on his eponymous album for Atlantic) Davis told John McLaughlin to play the melody in a single chord. The guitarist delivered an instinctive "naive" performance over a bass drone and the water-drop sounds of ring modulator effects from Chick Corea on Rhodes; Shorter and Davis followed suit, the trumpeter in particular articulating his notes superbly to express the starkness and beauty within the melody. As Holland's drone fades away there's an edit into the bridge of It's About That Time and a sudden surge of energy. (This fragment is actually looped out of the final moments of Miles' solo).
A descending motif on electric piano pulls in Williams' threatening rim shot ostinato, while Dave Holland marks uneasy time with a repeated bass figure. McLaughlin's solo conveys nervous energy and uncertainty; it's limpid, but hints at darkness to come, and a dangerous bass vamp starts to creep in. The threat advances and recedes during Shorter's solo, and the stage is set for Miles's entry. There's a short passage during which he sits on the initial motif, then the bass vamp kicks in and Tony Williams finally explodes into a pulsing rock beat, dragging Miles up into the stratosphere. No sooner is the tension released than the storm is over, the band returning to sit on the original groove, before In A Silent Way returns as a coda to complete the A/B/A structure of both main pieces.
Of course, the whole tension/release/coda structure of this album is a direct result of Macero's edits, which certainly entitles him to equal billing as co-author of the piece.
But the brilliance of the trumpeter's performance shouldn't be overlooked. Despite the briefness of his contribution his playing seems to spontaneously create a timeless melody which works as a complex composition in Shhh/Peaceful, and knits the entire jam together; his statement on In A Silent Way is unsurpassed for its stark beauty; and the muscularity of his climactic solo to It's about that time vindicates the restraint of the ensemble up until that point. While it's clear that Davis could have had no prior conception of the final sound of this music, it's also clear that he possessed the gift of bringing the right people together at the right time, and somehow inspiring them to exceed their own abilities. In a silent way is a tribute to this gift, and a milestone on jazz's journey into new pastures at the end of the sixties- a strange and unique soundscape on the cusp of jazz and rock.
An different version of this piece by the author was originally part of a Guardian albums series, now no longer available online.
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