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.
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.
With 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.
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
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.
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]