Miles Davis - In A Silent Way
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"Miles the dresser, Miles the boxer, Miles the bon vivant, Miles the pioneer.” -- Frank Glenn (from the original LP liner notes)
By ’69, of course, Miles had already wound his way down many paths, his meandering dance turning jazz on its head time and again. The albums Miles produced during the mid to late ‘60s hinted at the direction he would take as the decade folded, but not one of them fully prepared people for the changes in store during ’69. In A Silent Way marked the point at which Miles left conventional forms of jazz behind altogether, and moved into completely new ground. Previously he had reinvented old forms, made them his own by painting his lyrical, melancholy trumpet lines indelibly over whichever canvas he chose as his basis of expression. But come ’69 Miles started creating new canvases altogether, the world of jazz was simply not large or vivid enough to contain his perpetual and undying will to create, his need to seek new avenues of expression.
Moving away from the creative, modernist hard bop that Miles pioneered in the mid ‘60s, Miles In The Sky had looked at the future with trepidation, wanting to break free of itself and leap into the unknown, but seemed scared to do so. Filles De Kilimanjaro headed more successfully towards the territory of the fusion to come, but was still undeniably the work of a classic jazz quintet, however superlative that quintet may have been. In A Silent Way saw the famed quintet of the ‘60s dissipate, and the structures and rules of jazz as played by Miles dissolve along with them.
In A Silent Way presented a new kind of music, a music that rose from the ether, drifting and meandering like smoke caught in candlelight. Miles assembled a fluid octet for In A Silent Way that included three electric pianos (played by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul) and the electric guitar of the young John McLaughlin alongside soprano sax, bass, drums, and Miles’ trumpet. Together the band were perhaps the most cohesive and telepathic outfit Miles had put together, a feat considering the gift Miles had for assembling young talent. But however superlative the band may have been for In A Silent Way it remains an album largely built on the studio skills of Teo Macero and Miles himself. Behind the scenes, Miles and Teo took the tapes of the In A Silent Way sessions and transformed some beautiful, folk-tinged, melody-driven sets into two exquisite, beguiling and otherworldly pieces of music. Using techniques that pre-dated the proliferation of tape loops, cut-ups, edits and sequencing in rock, pop, hip hop and dance music, Miles and Teo took apart the original recording and reassembled them outside of any traditional or accepted jazz structure or melodic framework. This idea of taking jazz away from its birth, genesis and flowering as a live art and into the studio would soon become standard practice, but in 1969 it was groundbreaking.
In terms of mood, In A Silent Way treads similar ground to Miles’ classic Kind Of Blue, weaving its strange, formless ways around a hazy, after-hours ambience of subdued tones and delicious melancholy. The music itself though, is far away from the structured beauty of that album. It is free, unfettered and uncontainable, a liquid pool of keys and atmospheres from which originates a series of open-ended vamps and solos, and a rhythm that is sometimes barely present, at other times sinuously, subtly funk-inflected. There are no rules to this music, no boundaries. The players pick up on each other, establish riffs, whispers of melodies, and either leave them to dissolve or else gently breathe life into them. Shorter fills space, floating in and out of audibility, until it is his turn to articulate a moment. Miles sits back, in control, his presence notable by a waft of trumpet here and there, his image reclined against the studio door throughout, nodding his head as the music of his band matches the music in his mind. But really it is the three keyboardists and McLaughlin who make In A Silent Way the work of wonder that it is, the constant, slowly undulating core of sound over which McLaughlin weaves his way through a never-ending daze.
In A Silent Way is timeless. The fresh modes of constructing music that it presented revolutionised the jazz community, and the shifting, ethereal beauty of the actual music contained within has remained beautiful and wonderful, its echoes heard through the last 30 years, touching dance music, electronica, rock, pop, all music. People may cite the vast classicism of Sketches Of Spain, the wonderful, beautiful sorrow of A Kind Of Blue, or the seismic impact of Bitches Brew, but In A Silent Way is perhaps the understated peak of Miles’ career. The strange, elusive beauty of this album captures the essence of Miles and his music, distils his ongoing quest to find new ways of expression, and opens up new worlds to all who listen.