Miles Davis – In A Silent Way

Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
Released July, 1969

Miles Dewey Davis III is noted as one of the key players in the development of modern jazz, and is believed by music experts alike to have been at the forefront of the development of jazz fusion, bee bop, cool jazz and modal jazz.  Miles Davis was born in Illinois and grew up on a large ranch. As his father was a dentist, he enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. Davis’ musical education started quite late; he did not begin trumpet lessons until the age of 13. His music lessons in trumpet were strictly classical, and techniques instilled by his music teacher would remain with him for the rest of his career, particularly his aversion to the vibrato technique.  Davis continued playing trumpet in various local groups until he graduated from high school, at which time he enrolled in Juilliard School of Music in New York. Although important in teaching Davis the fundamentals of music theory, his time at Juilliard was limited and he soon quit to pursue development of his career as a professional musician and promptly found work as a session player for his idol Charlie Parker.  He went on to enjoy a colourful career as a trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer and band leader, with his career bearing fruit of no less than 48 studio albums, 36 live albums, 38 compilations and 57 singles. Davis was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

“In A Silent Way” was released in 1969 and is widely believed to have been the sign of things to come – it was the catalyst for the experimentation and development of jazz that would follow in the future decade of Davis’ career. When it was first released, the album was met with opposing opinions and caused controversy amongst the critics. Lovers of traditional Jazz were put off by Davis’ experimentation with electronic jazz, but newer, younger fans embraced the new style. Consisting of just 2 tracks, each almost 20 minutes in length, “In A Silent Way” was composed in a classical sonata-like form. This means that each of the tracks can be broken down into 3 sections – the introduction of a theme, the development of that theme, and the re-introduction of the theme (recapitulation). For example, the last 6 minutes of the first track are actually the first 6 minutes of the very same track, repeated. By composing the tracks in this cyclical format, Davis was able to build upon the themes; the density of sound gradually grows throughout the tracks, progressively building the theme until you feel it all come together (the development phase) and then, wow, the theme is suddenly woven back in and the cycle starts all over again.

When I first realised that the album only had 2 tracks, I was quite worried because I had a feeling it would be a crazy jumbly mess akin to Charles Mingus and it would be a hard album to listen to. But hey, luckily I was wrong. There’s something ethereal and dream like about “In a Silent Way”. It’s achieved by the use of modes (repetitive chord patterns), that are layered with enchanting keyboards, entrancing electric guitar solos and of course the shining soprano sax. Because of the blending of electronic instrumentation with the acoustic, the sound achieved is quite classic, it sounds as though it could be released today and fit in completely. It’s also the use of dynamics to their full capacity, that make this album so effective, and so beautiful. As the name “In A Silent Way” suggests, Davis has explored the use of the quieter moments as equally as the loud ones, a technique that I respect him for completely. In fact this album is the real proof for my constant argument I make in my afyccim reviews – quality, well-written music utilises dynamics (the light and shade, the loud and soft) and does not just have one consistent register and one volume level but in fact recognises the fact that sometimes it’s the things that are left unsaid, that truly deliver the message we wish to portray.

You don’t need be a lover of Jazz to enjoy “In A Silent Way”, as long as you keep an open mind. I implore you to sit in a comfy chair with a glass of wine and just let it wash over you.  I guarantee you’ll find something special.

From the opening keyboard and soft guitar chords, this album had me intrigued. By the time drummer Tony Williams started working the hi-hat, I was hooked. John McLaughlin’s wonderfully clean and melodic guitar then starts to come in and Dave Holland’s double bass keeps everything anchored. I’m swept away by the music and it’s as refreshing as a glass of iced water on a hot day. This is only about a minute and a half into the album and Miles hasn’t even started playing yet! When his trumpet does cut into the musical soundscape, it’s glorious. A few trumpet lines recur throughout the piece, named ‘Shhh/Perfect’, but it’s essentially an improvisation. This song takes up all of the first side of the album, and so does the song on the second, ‘In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time’. Organist Joe Zawinul is credited as having written the ‘In a Silent Way’ sections of that piece, but it’s nothing like his original composition. Miles’ solos aren’t the only impressive element here; did I mention that Chick Corea AND Herbie Hancock both play electric piano as well? That’s reason enough for you to check this out. Sounding way ahead of its time, this album surely helped give birth to the funk movement which would hit the peak of its popularity during the seventies. I think film scores in that decade where also influenced by this record, particularly the work of Isaac Hayes and Lalo Schifrin’s wonderful Dirty Harry soundtrack. I love an album that isn’t afraid to take its time and spread out. The band aren’t afraid of slow or silent moments and they also know how to make it groovy when needed. I found this a very pleasurable listening experience and I highly recommend this record to any fan of music.

Jazz is a BIG genre. I’ve actually stopped trying to keep up with all of the different fancy names given to the sub genres of jazz. There are so many different facets and nooks and crannies. To be honest, I find it all quite overwhelming and it is one of the reasons I’ve always steered away from the genre. One thing I’ve learnt with afyccim is that the three listen rule can take what one may initially consider to be a subpar album and turn it into a phenomenal album. “In A Silent Way” was no exception to the rule. Over repeated listens there is something about the groove of the album that works almost in a subliminal way…  drawing you in, making you want more. The beauty of this album is that it is the sum of its parts, the parts being a group fantastic musicians. Davis knows he is good, but he knows he is better with other artists pushing him and bringing out his best. It’s rare to find a musician who understands light and shade so well and knows when to step back and let the silence fill the space. Originally the two tracks on the album would’ve appeared with one on each side of the vinyl. I imagine people would have their favourite ‘side’ and mainly listen to that. My favourite side was definitely ‘side b’. I’d be happy to live in the first four minutes of that track forever. It actually reminds me a lot of instrumental band Explosions in the Sky. Davis was way ahead of the pack and before his time with “In A Silent Way”, and there are a multitude of artists who have him to thank for their careers. I for one thank you very much Miles Davis.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like this, but this review was a super hard one to right. Normally, we can break the album down to individual tracks and assess it on the merits of each song. But when the album is two tracks, both about twenty minutes long, it’s a bit of a mission to sort out.
One thing I can safely say about “In A Silent Way” is that it makes excellent background music. If you’re not intently listening to it (or you’ve just got a super short attention span [like me]), you can forget it’s even playing. Good headphones are definitely required, as is a room void of any distractions. A jail cell would do fine. For me, even when I focused closely on listening, I still found it quite difficult to listen to. It just goes on and on. I know avant garde jazz has a tendency to do that, but it’s the exact reason I can’t be done with it. It’s pretty. I get that. And musically, I’m sure it’s genius. All I’m saying, and I say it about every long winded jazz album, is short tracks! Or at least shortER. It’s just pure self indulgence. Horn masturbation. I will give Miles this though: he’s got some pretty impressive mates. “In A Silent Way” has blokes like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock playing piano, and Wayne Shorter, who played with Weather Report legendary bassist John Patitucci. It’s a star stacked album, that rather disappointingly, does nothing for me. I feel it wouldn’t be out of place in an elevator, or a 70’s dinner party. I don’t like feeling this way about jazz. It’s not their fault I’m like a six year old with ADD on red cordial. Just get to the point!

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