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: