Tiggerlion on In A Silent Way by Miles Davis
Fifty years ago today, Miles Davis unleashed a quiet storm. In A Silent Way is unique in the world of popular music and jazz. It calmly and clear-sightedly surrenders the old ways of acoustic instruments and small groups captured in whole takes and warmly embraces the new, the hum of electricity and the role of producer as contributory artist, cutting and splicing away. It consists of two vinyl-side long pieces that seem to float, beautiful and ethereal, only bursting with colour for a brief moment in the final third of side two. It challenges the very definition of Jazz, raising questions of authenticity and its relationship with technology and a wider Rock audience. The final product sounds as futuristic today as it did fifty years ago. It is Miles Davis reinventing modern music once again.
Legend has it that In A Silent Way, like Kind Of Blue ten years earlier, was recorded on a single day, that day being 18th February 1969. The story goes that Davis, the wizard alchemist, brought together a group of musicians and, with no clear instructions or guidance, coaxed a masterpiece out of them. The truth is a little more prosaic than that, but only marginally. Kind Of Blue took two days and the participants were given sketches of scales and melodies to improvise around. It was created within a modal structure. For In A Silent Way, the musicians spent a lot of time ‘rehearsing’ a few simple tunes brought to them, much of which was captured on tape in the studio by the producer, Teo Macero, on eight track. There was no structure, no chords. The performers could barely tell if a track had been completed or not. Davis arrived at the final blend methodically and carefully, a culmination of ideas gleaned from multiple sources over a period of months. He used the rehearsals to refine the sound, adjusting the musical ingredients in search of the magic formula, with Macero as his co-conspirator. He wanted the music to be free.
Miles Davis’s touring band was Wayne Shorter, saxophone, Chick Corea, electric piano, Dave Holland, bass, and Jack DeJohnette, drums. Herbie Hancock had been fired from the band the previous year, allegedly for returning late from his honeymoon in Brazil. He had formed his own quintet but continued to appear on Miles Davis studio albums. Tony Williams, too, had moved on to form Lifetime. Davis favoured his dynamism and rock stylings over DeJohnette’s funky grooves for this project and persuaded him to return. Williams was surprised to find Miles had invited the other members of Lifetime to the studio as well. Larry Young didn’t make the cut. However, John McLaughlin’s dreamy guitar picking became an integral part of In A Silent Way’s sound.
The final piece of the jigsaw was Joe Zawinul. Davis approached him to come up with musical ideas for the album. Davis knew Zawinul’s folky and soulful writing style well from his years in Cannonball Adderley’s group, where he composed some of the best tunes. He clearly had in mind how he was going to use his tone poems. Davis never simply played someone else’s tunes. He broke them down and reconstructed them in his own distinctive manner. Zawinul didn’t take too kindly to Davis’s treatment of his songs and grumbled about the absence of credit for It’s About That Time. Ten years later, his band Weather Report issued his preferred version of the title track and it’s almost unrecognisable.
The band, therefore, consisted of three keyboard players, two horns, guitar, bass and drums, enough to clutter up any piece of music, yet each of them managed to play in their own way, leaving plenty of room for the others. It was a sound arrived at, somewhat unusually for Davis, after a great deal of practice and its character lies in its restraint. These were nimble, energetic, incendiary musicians to a man but on In A Silent Way they defy the normal rules of physics and create music that seems to suspend both space and time. There are no heroic, muscular solos. Shorter chooses to play the gentler, more feminine soprano sax. Williams simply marks time, double-time admittedly. For the whole of side one, he plays just the hi-hat. Holland’s bass is on a loop. For long periods, he plays just one note. The electric pianos and organ are layered but the players compliment each other perfectly, barely stroking the keys. Each brings a different, delicate texture rather than a thicket of notes. McLaughlin struggled to work in the holes until Davis famously instructed him to play guitar like he didn’t know how. Then, he found a way to effectively play off Corea in particular. Despite the absence of chords and the presence of mere whispers of melody, the net result is cohesive and shimmering, a breath-taking demonstration of musical empathy. Over the top, Davis plays at his most lucid and elegiac.
But it’s not the quietness of In A Silent Way that makes it so special, it’s its tension. The restraint threatens to break at any moment. There is a sense that a more powerful force, such as gravity, is about to bring the whole thing crashing down. Williams, especially, has the air of a prowling big cat about to pounce on its prey. He finally erupts deep into side two. Until that point, the search for a resolution is sustained and uncertain. The impression is of a groggy, disorientated man feeling his way round an unfamiliar house in the small hours. In A Silent Way is far from tranquil and meditative. It’s more the ruminative contemplation of a troubled mind, wrestling with the big questions of life.
The post-production work shaped the end product in an unprecedented manner. Macero had over forty hours of recordings. This time, Davis was actively involved in track selection and editing decisions. Each side of the album, in old vinyl, is divided into three parts: exposition, development and recapitulation. The first and third parts are identical on both sides. An album of thirty-eight minutes has over ten minutes repeated. The track list should read: Side One Shhh/Peaceful/Shhh, Side Two In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time/In A Silent Way. The reason it works so well is that the development sections pick up immediately where the introduction finishes, explore several elaborate ideas and bring the listener, riding on the back of a beautiful Davis solo, right to where the track started in the first place. Shhh was recorded separately to Peaceful as was In A Silent Way and It’s About That Time. They listened intently to the sessions, picking out every detail, every solo, every combination, every individual contribution. They heard things in the music beyond the range of normal mortals, selecting very specific elements they could use rearranged and recombined. There wasn’t any overdubbing in the proper sense but the bass-line or solo might be moved from one point to another. Davis’s and Shorter’s solos were strategically placed so they would fit flawlessly, timing their playing with absolute precision. The repetition is welcome and satisfying, barely noticeable, testament to the intricacy of the detail. The result was a new type of studio performance, melding different musical elements into one continuous flow.
Much is made of the influence of Davis’s new wife, Betty, a lady half his age who loved Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Certainly, the electric Miles of the seventies contains a lot of Funk and Rock. However, apart from the fact both guitars are plugged in, it is difficult to hear anything of those artists in In A Silent Way. Miles’s ears were astonishing. They could tune in to a tone, a rhythm or a sound and he’d find a way to deploy them in his own music. Perhaps, he’d been pricked by side three of Electric Ladyland.
The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, released in 2001, pulls back the curtain on its secrets to a degree. Some of those forty hours of tapes were issued later on Water Babies, Directions and Circle In The Round, all decent albums but nowhere near as engaging and as popular as In A Silent Way itself. Presented chronologically, The Complete Sessions track the transition from acoustic to electric. The previously unreleased outtakes are of interest to Miles Davis fans but represent failed attempts to replicate the parent album’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, you can hear Davis and Teo inching towards the sound they were looking for, even, on occasion, over-reaching. In the end, The Complete Sessions demonstrate that Davis and Macero made all the right choices back in 1969. Only material recorded in a single session on the 18th February was used, so the claim it was recorded in a day is technically correct, but there was a lot more work involved than just those three hours of studio time.
The cover is iconic, too. Lee Friedlander took the photo on the front, depicting Miles, wearing a dark polo neck sweater, gazing implacably up to his left, as though contemplating an uncertain future. Jacques Denis, a music journalist, described the expression as “feverishly serene”, reflecting the quiet intensity of the album within. Friedlander had spent years providing excellent covers for Jazz and Atlantic Records but In A Silent is probably his best known and marked the point at which he became recognised as an artistic photographer. It raised his profile to such a degree that his black and white social documentary and landscape photographs attracted attention too.
“Directions in music by Miles Davis” it says on the cover. With In A Silent Way, Davis directed music, as a whole, to somewhere else entirely. It is neither Jazz, Rock nor Fusion. Nor is it Ambient. It doesn’t swing and there isn’t much you can hum, yet it is gripping, telling its story beautifully. It is elusive, enigmatic and impossible to categorise. It has the majestic narrative arc of a Martin Luther King speech, is as
dramatically sophisticated as a Bernini statue, as beautifully executed as a Mozart Quintet and possesses the exquisite intimacy of a Renoir portrait. In A Silent Way is a work of genius.
File alongside Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain.