Treble 100, No. 11: Miles Davis – In a Silent Way

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Miles Davis In a Silent Way

The future isn’t what it used to be. Pop culture in the ’50s and ’60s produced images of space-age bachelor pads decked in midcentury modern furnishings, an embrace of cosmic cool that coincided with innovations in science and technology that eventually led to exploration of space—shiny, silver jumpsuit optional. Robots were B-movie villains, or housekeepers with Brooklyn accents, and Mars was prime real estate for vacation resorts. In hindsight maybe it sounds quaint, even silly, but at least it was fun.

Today, we don’t imagine interplanetary tiki bars on Mars but rather a last-ditch refuge for those able to escape climate change. Meanwhile, technological innovation is happening at an accelerated rate in areas that provide no meaningful value to anyone they’re being sold to. Even the experience of seeing live music is rapidly being ruined by ticket surge pricing and flying debris chucked for TikTok clout.

There was plenty of reason to be pessimistic and/or terrified in 1969, to be fair: 14 years deep in a deteriorating foreign conflict, worldwide civil unrest, the Tate-LaBianca murders, numerous air disasters, and so on. Yet the promise of better things to come could be found in music: free jazz and the earliest roars of punk rock, psychedelic soul and a rising experimental scene in Germany. And then there was Miles Davis. Davis played and composed music that seemed both well before its time and of an entirely different world—in other words, he saw the future, and in many respects, he changed a lot of how we hear and understand not just jazz, but rock, electronic music, and otherwise. And he knew that; in a heated conversation with a politician’s wife in the 1980s at a dinner given by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, after being asked what he’s accomplished in his life, Davis replied, “Well, I changed music five or six times, so I guess that’s what I’ve done.”

He didn’t just mean his music, he meant music. Davis is arguably the most significant artist in 20th century jazz, a term he didn’t particularly care to use to describe his own music. At the very least it’s an oversimplification; how does one solitary genre capture transitioning from hard bop to orchestral big band sounds to an electrified sound that merged the improvisational and instrumental approach to jazz with the volume and urgency of rock music, or in other words, “fusion“?

Davis didn’t invent fusion, but he got a lot of mileage out of it in a concentrated period of time. On his 1970 album Bitches Brew, one of the best-selling in his career and a landmark album of jazz fusion, the album cover features the description, “Directions in Music by Miles Davis,” indicating not so much an adherence to the rules of any given style of music as a way forward from the familiar and the traditional. (And that same year, Davis shared the stage with Neil Young and Crazy Horse during a four-night residency, further reinforcing his growing distance from jazz.) In a Silent Way, released a year earlier, is perhaps an even more important album in cultivating the base elements of Davis’ electric period, as well as his first jazz fusion masterpiece.

Situated between the warm, electric grooves of albums like Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro and the skronkier jazz-rock intensity of A Tribute to Jack Johnson and On the Corner, In a Silent Way is a more elegant and ambient set of extended grooves. Miles Davis’ output throughout the ’60s largely found him moving past standards in favor of original compositions, including those written by bandmates Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. In A Silent Way is no different, but those compositions comprise expansive, side-long sound collages. Davis and producer Teo Macero employed editing techniques in a radical departure from jazz norms at the time, stitching together different pieces of studio recordings rather than simply capturing an uninterrupted live take from beginning to end. Davis would use a similar technique on subsequent releases, and more radical rock bands like Can would likewise use a similar approach on albums like Tago Mago.

The two long pieces on In a Silent Way aren’t as subdued as their names suggest, but they’re also relatively easygoing in contrast to the recordings that followed. The first of the two, “Shhh/Peaceful,” is a seemingly endless groove, defined by the twin keyboard performances from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea rather than Davis’ trumpet. It feels like elliptical waves lapping over you as you enter a portal into a darkly thrilling unknown, casting aside the swing of jazz as most listeners knew it in favor of a vibe you could ride into infinity.

“In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” is cut from a similar cloth but feels more explicitly like two compositions fused together, the former composed by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and defined as much by space as the warm jangle of John McLaughlin’s guitar chimes. But by the time Davis’ “It’s About That Time” kicks in, Davis and his ensemble find the funk, Dave Holland’s bass carving what feels like a deeper groove with every measure.

I first heard In a Silent Way as a teenager, when the album was already around 30 years old, introduced to this music before my time by a member of a prior generation: My own father, who I can thank for introducing me to jazz altogether. I remember the afternoon distinctly, Davis’ Bitches Brew catching my attention because of its weird, psychedelic grooves and endlessly unfolding compositions. To which he offered an “if you like that, you’ll love this” transition to In a Silent Way. And he was right; both albums are perfect to my ears, but where Bitches Brew seemed like an arrival in a fascinatingly strange and unfamiliar place, In a Silent Way was the wormhole you had to pass through to get there, a portal to tomorrow.

In a Silent Way provided what was then the most compelling argument that “jazz” was insufficient in capturing the scope of Davis’ musical vision. Known more for his writing about rock music, Lester Bangs described In A Silent Way as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music. It is not rock and roll, but it’s nothing stereotyped as jazz either.” After more than five decades, it continues to instill such a feeling, fueling optimism in a future where innovation exists solely for the sake of pure expression and exploration still might lead us somewhere well beyond the familiar.

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Miles Davis: In a Silent Way

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View Comments (2)
  • real nice piece jeff. your description of the zeitgeist of the ’50s/’60s is spot on. oh you talk about music a bit too and drop in a mention of my favorite miles record, jack johnson, but my take away is the scene with your dad and you and bitches brew and in a silent way. funny how a simple few sentences can dredge up so many memories and emotions. fucking miles.

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