TRANSCENDENTAL (NEW) MUSIC

Josef Zawinul wrote the melody ‘In a silent way’ after visiting his Austrian family for Christmas. It is a wistful, almost folky melody that you can hear on the composer’s self-titled 1971 album. But more famously and influentially the tune became the title for a 1969 album that indicated a far-reaching change of direction for that most restless of musicians, Miles Davis.

In addition to the leader’s muted trumpet, here we find not one but three fecund keyboard players (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul), the introduction of guitarist John McLaughlin to US audiences, a bright young percussion star in drummer Tony Williams working creatively with British bassist Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter’s understated sax and probably the most daring use of studio editing on a jazz album… ever. Much has been written about the successor to this LP – the sprawling double album Bitches Brew, released a mere seven months later – but that is not the focus here; we pause only to note that the brouhaha surrounding that album often overshadows the game-changing magic of In A Silent Way.

in-a-silent-way-cover

Recording took place over just two days in February 1969 with the finished album being released at the end of July that year. Why is it so important? Because In A Silent Way clearly and unequivocally combines jazz and rock. Yet it is not rock music that fans of the time would have recognised. Those who enjoyed the live excursions of The Grateful Dead (Live/Dead, released November 1969) or had attended a Pink Floyd concert around that time (recordings made in April and May were used for Ummagumma, released in November 1969) might have found the unfolding grooves and musical themes somehow accessible… but certainly not familiar. As iconic critic Lester Bangs wrote: “It’s not rock and roll but it’s nothing stereo-typed as jazz either… It’s part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away.” (Rolling Stone, December 1969). In those halcyon days you could talk about music providing transformative experiences without sounding like a tosser.

The playing is exemplary throughout. According to Chick Corea, the fact that tapes were running constantly relaxed the musicians and ‘made’ the quiet atmosphere that pervades the music. John McLaughlin recalls being uncertain about what Miles wanted him to do but felt trusted by the leader to find his own voice. Davis encouraged his musicians to explore and expand in long open-ended jam sessions, worrying neither about structure nor pre-prepared charts. This germinated a relaxed and spacious feel but left the editing of the recordings to the post-production process.

And this is where it gets interesting and a bit controversial. Producer Teo Macero had the task of assembling an album from the many hours of recordings and it is the way he edited the sections together that was so innovative and startling to listeners at the time. One critic even complained that he had erroneously re-used a section, as if it was an accident. But it is this editing which gives In A Silent Way its magic and power. It is instructive to note that, despite being quick to claim the credit for all aspects of his recorded output, Miles Davis was not involved with the assembly of the album. This is how Teo Macero remembers their relationship generally:

“You know, he’d walk into the session, play, then walk out. In the 26 or 28 years we worked together he maybe came to the editing room five or six times. He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four to five weeks to make them sound right.” (Nicholson, p. 100)

Without Macero’s production, what would the result of those sessions have been? The raw material can be heard in the original session tapes (released as a 3 CD set in 2001) that amply demonstrate just what visionary (re-) construction was performed at the mixing console.

IMG_2707With two side-long pieces, hypnotic repetition, a soothing funkiness, spacey keyboards and floating trumpet and reed solos, this is a profoundly engaging and influential album. ‘Shhh/Peaceful’ opens with a ghostly organ chord before the gently relentless high-hat cymbal groove kicks in. Like light rain falling steadily on a tin roof, when it ceases briefly you look up, expectant. That sense of waiting, of moving towards but never arriving, continues throughout the eighteen minutes of Side 1 until the organ, electric piano and cymbal rhythm fade away again.

Side 2. John McLaughlin picks out the ‘In a silent way’ melody in tentative guitar filigree. Wayne Shorter takes over with a caress then at about 3 minutes, Miles glides forward. It’s beautiful and haunting so that when the ‘It’s about that time’ theme enters there’s a surge, a nudge, a wake-up call from the pastoral dream. But things settle down and another groove emerges, train-like perhaps, but not at all like Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’. Less teutonic efficiency, more a blissed out funk excursion to the country-side. Then, a little before the half-way point of the side, this sinuous bass riff slides in under Shorter’s sax. It’s a killer groove and when it fades away you want more. And there is more… here it comes again… and again. A rolling blue-green tidal riff of gently swaying kelp and eternal moon-rhythms. Then a sigh, a dropping of the eyes, McLaughlin is offering the ‘In a silent way’ melody again. Shhh. Be peaceful.

Miles, 1969 [Courtesy wolfgangsvault.com]

Miles, 1969 [Courtesy wolfgangsvault.com]

*

 A while ago I wrote a few reviews for Prog Archives and its sibling site, Jazz Archives. In an attempt to hammer some tent pegs into the flapping subjectivity of personal reflection, I came up with the following format and grading scale:

Vision & Innovation –  score out of 30

Playing & Composition – out of 30

Listener Enjoyment – out of 30

X-Factor [cover, extras, reviewer bias] – out of 10

There is no doubt that any album achieving honours (80+) is doing something right. Try it out for some favourites (or pet hates) and see what you think. In the meantime, here are my scores for In A Silent Way:

Vision & Innovation – 30/ 30

Playing & Composition – 28/30

Listener Enjoyment – 29/30

X-Factor [cover, extras, reviewer bias] – 9/10

Total: 96/100

Don’t worry if Bitches Brew is a bit too alien and Kind of Blue just too jazz. If you are a lover of progressive music and beauty this is a Miles Davis album you can lean towards with confidence.

*

SOURCES

Miles Davis ‘In A Silent Way’ [Columbia, 1969]

Miles Davis ‘The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions’ [Columbia Legacy, 2001]

Joe Zawinul ‘Zawinul’ [Atlantic, 1971]

Stuart Nicholson ‘Jazz Rock: A History’ [Schirmer Books, NY, 1998]

20 comments

  1. Thank you Bruce. I will listen to ‘In A Silent Way’ again and I have no doubt that I will enjoy it the more because of your enlightening discussion of this album.

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    1. Thanks David. I enjoyed writing this one – sharing a favourite!

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  2. Brilliant. I veer between IASW and ..Brew, as to which I prefer. I do probably prefer the melodies and the invention in IASW, especially on the second side.

    Good on you as well for highlighting Teo Macero, a man who was as much Miles davis as Gil Evans was before him!

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    1. Recorded so close together in time, but such different beasts.
      When I want the edgy funk-dipped electric Miles I often go for ‘Jack Johnson’ rather than ‘Bitches Brew’. Not sure why.

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      1. I still haven’t bought that one yet – 16 Miles LPs and not Jack Johnson, shocking! There’s always something else to buy. Maybe Popthingy could do a complete Miles vinyl bundle? it could come with a free extension to your listening room to house them all in.

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    2. Yep, it is a massive catalogue, expanding all the time with archival releases. D’you know, I’ve more Miles than any other single artist? Now there’s a post idea… “A Miles for any Mood”.

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  3. The Prudent Groove · · Reply

    “Like light rain falling steadily on a tin roof, when it ceases briefly you look up, expectant.” After I finish with Faust, it’s Miles Davis time! Thanks!

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    1. Faust to Miles… that will be some transition, PG! Still, given your enjoyment of dance/electronica, I am pretty confident you’ll find much to enjoy about ‘In A Silent Way’. Happy listening!

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  4. squirrola · · Reply

    Are Josef Zawinul and Joe Zawinul the same person?

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  5. […] does is to reference jazz and jazz fusion of the late ’60s and early ’70s, particularly Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. This is music that has also traded in moments of quiet, of noise, of lines that seem to be going […]

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  6. […] In utero he heard Miles Davis In A Silent Way almost every night of the third trimester. His mother and I loved the album and often relaxed into its kind of blue groove, so why wouldn’t it enhance the development of a soon-to-be-released little one? [You can read my appraisal of this wonderful album here.] […]

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  7. […] V-18    Who wrote the title tune of In A Silent Way? […]

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  8. A year ago I decided to explore albums that flowed out of the cool, i.e. more or less starting with Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and the information I picked up along the way about who played with whom and what might be worth a listen. Thanks for kicking me forward to In a Silent Way, it’s a great album and thanks too for the other eccentric loops you’ve prompted me to added to my journey this year.

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    1. Thanks for that feedback. It certainly is a journey from Birth of the Cool to In A Silent Way – but a fascinating and (hopefully) rewarding one too.
      It’s been great to have you along on the Vinyl Connection trip!

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      1. Water Babies arrived about 10 days ago – love it. Another stepping stone that I’ve haphazardly plonked into the flow out of the Cool. Water Babies made me (a) want to line up my favourite Shorter albums of the era (as leader and alongside Miles) and (b) re-read the IASW post before doing so. Better check I’ve mp3’d them onto the phone I’m taking to China.
        Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. An outstanding stone indeed, coz! I picked up Supernova on vinyl recently. Whoo! What a trip! And just last weekend, the Mob Fid re-issue of Nefertiti. Miles. What a catalogue.

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  9. […] some serious voltage into it. What’s more, the musicians who played on the seminal Miles albums In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), and Jack Johnson (1971) went off in a shower of sparks, starting […]

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  10. […] A titan of jazz, Miles Dewey Davis III was active in every decade from the 40s to the 90s. Think about it: a span of six decades. From his youthful connection with bebop legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and ‘cool’ jazz through the creative ferment of the 60s to the ground-breaking jazz-rock fusions of the 70s, the Miles Davis catalogue of well over 60 albums is an extraordinary body of work. The fact that the Allmusic Guide gives no less than 17 of them the full five stars tells you all you need to know. Read more about one of my many favourites here. […]

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  11. […] this is also your chance to read Bruce Jenkins’ piece right here about this very same record, found on […]

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