Miles Davis, In a Silent Way

Album of the Week, August 20, 2022

There are liminal moments in music history, moments that stand perched on the edge of a knife, where music stands to move one way or another. Where it can fall back and recapitulate that which came before, or fall forward into something strange and new. Miles Davis stands alone among 20th century musicians because he embraced these liminal moments, and his finest albums came from them. There may be no greater such moment in his lengthy discography than In a Silent Way.

We have heard him searching for a new sound through the last few weeks, with the addition of guitar on Miles in the Sky, the use of electric keyboards on Filles de Kilimanjaro, the use of two keyboardists on Water Babies, and throughout a shift toward songwriting that moved much of the complexity of the arrangements down into the rhythm section, leaving the horns free to embrace uncluttered melodic moments. Those movements in his writing came together as Miles continued to record through November of 1968, but none of the recordings would see the light of day until years later. However, the sessions added one important musician to the lineup on the second to last day, when the players were joined by Joe Zawinul on the organ.

Josef Zawinul was a Swiss-born musician and composer who had come to the United States in 1959 to attend the Berklee College of Music, but dropped out after a few weeks to tour with Maynard Ferguson. He came to the notice of audiences in Cannonball Adderley’s group, where he composed in a more harmonically advanced version of the soul jazz that Adderley was playing. He came to Miles’s attention and was asked to join him in the studio to contribute ideas. This swelled the number of keyboardists in the group assembled in the studio to three, since Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were still both working with Miles.

The group took a hiatus from the studio until February 18, 1969, where they came together with another new face: the English guitarist John McLaughlin, who had come to the States two weeks previously to play in The Tony Williams Lifetime. McLaughlin reportedly idolized Miles and was petrified to meet him in the studio. So these musicians, together with Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Dave Holland, formed the group with which Miles embarked into a new world.

The music that the group recorded on that day has the sound of exploration, but for years there was no way to hear the tracks as originally recorded, because Teo Macero was on hand to lend the finishing touch to the masterpiece by combining several songs into two album-side-long sonatas. (You can hear the individual tracks on The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, which I highly recommend.) Miles had paid close attention to the studio work of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix; this was the first recording where he embraced the studio as another instrument in the process.

Shhh/Peaceful” comprises the entirety of Side One, and opens with the sound of both new members at once: an arpeggiated chord in McLaughlin’s guitar over a suspended minor chord in Zawinul’s organ. From there the melody unfolds in the guitar over the three keyboardists, anchored by the relentless pulse of Holland’s bass coming up a fourth and by Williams’ consistently steady rock pulse. The group comes to a pause, a silence that’s broken by Williams and Holland, and then everything starts again, this time with Miles bringing a major-key melody to the front above all the complexity, over a bed of chords in the electric pianos and organ. The echoing effects created by Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes in particular lend a distinctive sound here, one that I’ve written about in the past as “jazz in inner space.” As with earlier works like “Fall,” the rhythm section circles around to the theme between solos, as Miles, then McLaughlin, and finally Wayne Shorter take a turn.

Because of Teo Macero’s work, when I first heard this music in my first year of college, I assumed that it must have been through-composed. How else could the musicians have recapitulated that opening so precisely? With the knowledge that the sonata form was constructed at the tape in the studio, rather than in sheet music, my astonishment at listening to the work is redirected to the brilliance of the improvisations that constitute the repeated sections. This is a group that listens closely to each other to produce those miracles of sound.

The second half of the album is a similar sonata, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” constructed around two different soundscapes. The title song began life as a Joe Zawinul composition that was meant to evoke the sounds of the Swiss Alps. Translated into Miles’ horn and the electric keyboards and guitar, the music is less Alpenhorn (though that inspiration is unmistakable when you listen for it) and more Also Sprach Zarathustra. This is a statement of the discovery of a new world, and Miles is our guide.

Once Miles concludes his statement of the theme, there is a pause and a shift, and we are in a different place yet again. The “It’s About That Time” portion of the track is outwardly a more straightforward rock tune. But even here Miles plays against expectations, with the chorus shifting into a modal blues, in patterns of three measures stated in Chick Corea’s electric piano with support from Dave Holland and Joe Zawinul’s organ. John McLaughlin plays a free improvisation over the ground laid down by the rhythm section, and then Zawinul brings forward another counter-melody that locks into the groove.

It is at this point that Wayne Shorter steps forward with a dramatic solo, for the first time on record played on the soprano sax rather than the tenor. Wayne had started to play on the soprano in the very last 1968 recording session of Miles’s group, and it quickly became one of his signature sounds. Lines that in the tenor would have had a more searching, visceral quality here seem to float serenely, providing a powerful contrast to the rhythm section below. There may have well been a practical reason for the use of the soprano sax, as the higher register would have punched through the rest of the instrumentation more easily. Whatever the reason, Shorter’s work on the soprano sax became virtually synonymous with early jazz fusion. The improvisation draws to a close with Miles blowing an incandescent solo above the group motion. The side draws to a close with a restatement of the “In a Silent Way” theme, again cut together into the track by Teo.

In a Silent Way pointed the way to the sound of future Miles groups, while keeping one foot in the past with the yearning, open sound of the solos. In the early 1970s he would add additional percussionists, foreground the guitar more, and change the personnel frequently, but the basic combination of horns, electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass, and drums would be the instrumentation on which he built jazz fusion, starting with the very next album, Bitches Brew. My record collection is shy on Miles fusion recordings, though there will be one more before all is done. But we’ll hear from other members of the quintet, and other Miles alumni, in their solo recordings, starting with next week’s entry.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Water Babies

Album of the Week, August 13, 2022

We’ve talked about how Miles and his band—er, bands—spent a lot of time in the studio between mid-1967 through 1968, recording the sessions that became Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. But those albums aren’t the whole story. There was enough material left uncollected from these sessions to fill several albums. And in 1975, Columbia Records began filling them.

At that point, Miles had retired—temporarily, it turns out—due to “health reasons.” In this case the euphemism was at least partly accurate. His hip pain, still present after the replacement he had done in 1965, was worsening. But he was also suffering from the rock and roll lifestyle that he embraced (spoiler alert) following Bitches Brew, and his addictions to alcohol and cocaine almost certainly played a role in the decision to retire.

Whatever the cause, Columbia started looking in its vaults and realized it had a huge number of unreleased tracks, so they queued up the process of releasing them. One of the first sets to come out is today’s album, Water Babies. Recorded in two sessions, one with the Second Great Quintet following Nefertiti and one with Chick Corea and Dave Holland joining Tony, Miles and Wayne following Filles, and with all but one track composed by Wayne Shorter, the album is a fantastic transitional document that sheds light on what the quintet got up to among the other sessions we’ve heard. (Note: this review was written from the LP, so omits “Splash,” another Wayne Shorter tune that closes out the CD and digital versions of the album.)

In the case of the title track, they were recording a masterpiece. “Water Babies,” recorded the same day as “Nefertiti,” is a tense modal waltz that features all the trademarks of the quintet: telepathic handoffs between the horns, brilliant solos, and a genius rhythm section that elevates the tune to the next level. Like some of Shorter’s other comppositions, this one was released in versions both with Miles and with his own band; we’ll hear a very different version of the track soon.

The same group recorded “Capricorn” six days later. It’s a looser track that ambles without rambling, somehow. Anchored by Ron Carter’s brilliant walking bass, both horns go far out in solos that are unanchored by chords, as Herbie lays out for all but the choruses and his right-hand solo. The stylistic approach is a more relaxed version of the quintet that both foretells the genial humor of “Pinocchio” and looks forward to some later

Sweet Pea,” the last of the numbers from the 1967 Nefertiti sessions, is a melancholy ballad that opens with Miles freely improvising over the rhythm section, and gradually moving into time, prodded by the accelerating exaltations of Tony Williams’ drums. Wayne Shorter’s solo is sublimely meditative in the spirit of “Iris” and “Miyako”; Herbie Hancock’s statement that follows is another in the series of proof points that the composer of “Blind Man, Blind Man” need cede no ground to Bill Evans or other subtle artists of the keyboard.

The second half of the album, recorded in a session in November 1968, features the Filles quintet, plus Herbie Hancock. At this point Miles had begun to explore the sound possibilities of multiple keyboard instruments, so we get to hear both Chick Corea’s chunky electric piano sound and Herbie’s Fender Rhodes under Miles’ initial free exploration of the harmonic space in the opening of “Two Faced.” An extended solo by Herbie follows, with the rhythm section leaning into a rock inspired riff by way of Tony Williams’ polyrhythms. A brisk Wayne Shorter solo follows over the sounds of the two electric pianos playing against each other, tossing riffs and sounds back and forth. When Miles’ trumpet returns, he and Shorter continue the duality theme by tossing phrases back and forth to each other, returning them extended, slurred, blurred, but otherwise still recognizable. Corea’s solo at the end seems to point the way to a different direction, with some of the atmosphere of Hancock’s electric piano but more of an incisive bite.

Dual Mr. Anthony Tillman Williams Process,” which is sometimes mislabeled as “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” on reissues, The solo non-shorter composition on the record, this appears to start as an improv by Miles and Williams passing bars back and forth, Holland and the rhythm section pick up on the idea and morph it into a blues that wouldn’t be out of place on a later Herbie Hancock record, as we’ll see in a few weeks. Miles doesn’t return to take a solo for another four or five minutes, and both he and Wayne lean into the blues. The track ends as a meditation on the theme by the rhythm section. It’s a brilliantly tossed off bit of joy.

For a “compilation album,” Water Babies hits some pretty high notes. Far from scraping the barrel, it appears to open the door to a vast storeroom of possible discoveries from this incredibly fertile period in Miles and the quintet’s discography. We’ll hear the next official release in that series next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Filles de Kilimanjaro

Album of the Week, August 6, 2022.

So we have now come to the last of the great albums of the Second Great Quintet. Although there was, chronologically, at least one more set of recordings from the group to come, and although many of the quintet members would record with Miles on one or more of his next albums, and although several tracks on the album feature a slightly different quintet!—still we must count Filles de Kilimanjaro as a significant milepost along the twisting road of Miles’ recorded output.  It is simultaneously the end and beginning of something, and in it you can hear how the polyrhythyms that appeared on Miles Smiles, the inversions in improvisational structure that he pursued in Nefertiti and the excursions into outright funk that surfaced on Miles in the Sky began to coalesce into something strange and new. It is also harder to write something new about Filles, for much the same reason, so I will have to settle for giving you a personal highlights tour, and you will have to agree to pursue with me my thesis, which is that Filles de Kilimanjaro discovers at least as much praise as is customarily heaped upon Kind of Blue.

The sessions that recorded Filles commenced four days after the last session for Miles in the Sky. Miles was restless, as we have established in the review of that album, and while one might assume that the funky lead-off track, “Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet),” would immediately follow the recording of “Stuff,” Miles and his band began with “Tout de Suite,” “Petits Machins (Little Stuff),” and the title track, all dense explorations of sound that bear strong family resemblances to “Footprints,” “Nefertiti,” and “Fall.” These sessions continue until June. There is a break, then a session on September 24 in which Chick Corea replaces Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Dave Holland sits in for Ron Carter. They record “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)“ and “Frelon Brun.” 

What motivated Miles to change up the personnel of the quintet? It may have been motivated by the members’ own restlessness. Carter apparently left of his own accord during the recordings, and Hancock was dismissed, supposedly for returning late from his honeymoon. One suspects, given the restlessness of Miles’ work, that he was also interested in incorporating new sounds, which he did with a vengeance from the very first track.

Frelon Brun” is a mighty funk, with the one-two punch of Dave Holland’s slightly pitchy electric bass line doubled in places by Chick Corea’s electric piano over an absolute tsunami of drums from Tony Williams. The chorus is almost insouciantly stated over the bass line by the horns, and then Miles takes a commanding solo that rips through and over the rhythm section. Miles sounds energized and vital, and plays off the sounds of the rhythm section. Wayne Shorter’s tenor solo brings the sound into a minor mode, but is no less propulsive for that, finding a moment of levitation over Holland’s bass line and Corea’s alternating chords. When the sax drops away, Corea gets a moment of relative calm to explore the minor tonality between the chords, in a way that pursues the melody right back into a recapitulation of the theme. The overall effect is something like showing up to a black tie event in denim and leather, which one suspects is what Miles had in mind. It was this track that was the first from MIles’ great quintets to grace one of my mix tapes, once upon a time, in no small measure due to the aggressive blending of genre that the track demonstrates.

By contrast, “Tout de Suite” is on somewhat more familiar ground, though high ground indeed. Instead of Corea’s edgy electric piano tone, we get the round, bell-like sounds of Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in perfect lock step with bass and drums. The horns enter in a modal melody that might not have been out of place on Sketches of Spain. Ron Carter’s electric bass line leads the way through the chord progressions of the opening chorus, as the horns explore a high suspension that never quite resolves, which leads into a quietly agitated dialog for piano and bass, over which Miles improvises a solo that moves from the minor tonality of the rhythm section back to the major mode of the chorus and around again. As he explores different rhythms — an ascending scale here, a smeared tone there — they follow and support him until he exits on a long suspended note, a minor third above the tonic. Wayne Shorter’s solo explores some of the bursts of dialog between the piano and the bass, serenely rising to a recap of the melody over the churning explorations of the rhythm section, then fading away as they explore an extended solo section in the agitated rhythm before returning to the swing of the chorus for a recap. The melody of this track, with its alternating blues and searching melodic line, has been my post-concert driving music at Tanglewood for many years as my heart rate drops back to normal following a performance and I look skyward into the stars above Lenox.

Petit Machins (Little Stuff)” is, by contrast, simultaneously more straightforward and more complex, with an introduction in 11/4 that drops into a hard 4/4 almost immediately. The arrangement bears some of the hand of Gil Evans, who had been in discussions with Miles about incorporating some of the sounds of Jimi Hendrix into Miles’ repertoire. Marcus Singletary has written about the rhythmic complexities of the solos, but the track is remarkable for the continued forward melodic thrust, driven by the motif of the chromatic ascending four-chord pattern from the rhythm section. The track concludes with a second solo by Miles on the theme that he invented in his first solo, serving as coda to the tune.

This brings us to “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” whose circularity brings to mind “Fall” and “Nefertiti,” but whose sense of shifting meter, tonality, and insistent funk bass line situates it firmly as its own creature. The return to a major mode for the melody, together with the ascending melodic line in major fourths, fifths, and sixths, contributes to the sense of openness and exploration, while the continued descending motif in the piano and bass keeps the track grounded. It has the feel of a kaleidoscope constantly opening as the horns continue to return to the theme over and over again, bookending solos by Hancock, Miles, Shorter, and Miles again, who finds a second theme (which more than hints at the theme from “The Flintstones”!). Carter and Williams provide the constant pulse and ground over which the solos climb and descend. If this is the last statement, chronologically, of the second great quintet, it’s a worthy summation.

If the title track sums up what has gone before, “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry),” the closing statement of the album, seems to come from some glorious afterworld. The longest track on the album, the opening melody is in a straightforward major key, over constant polyrhythmic improvisation by Tony Williams. The tune, which has been identified as a free rearrangement of Hendrix’s “And the Wind Cries Mary,” circles around in the rhythm section for several minutes before the horns enter, as Williams enters in a dialog with Corea and Holland. A note should be made here of Williams’ total mastery on this track, moving from subtle brushwork to rolling patterns of three in the snare to dryly humorous and understated single hits on the cymbal to punctuate the other players, it’s a miracle of understated magnificence. Miles’ solo, when it eventually enters, is one of the purest bits of melody on the record. Unlike with “Filles,” the melodic improvisation carries on for several minutes, without the circular return to the chorus. When Wayne Shorter comes in, he is in a similar melodic space, with his tenor showing the same purity of tone and conception that he was soon to bring to his soprano sax playing. Both horns bring a sense of complete serenity to the performance.

All in all, Filles de Kilimanjaro lives up to its packaging: it is in fact replete with “Directions in Music.” For those who welcomed the Miles Davis Quintet’s exploration of the frontiers of post-bop, it is the end of a long journey but of course also the start of something new. Miles’ restless recordings would continue through the summer of 1968; we’ll hear the next fruits of their sessions, together with a last love note from the Second Great Quintet, next time.

You can listen to the album here: