Miles: Silent Ways

The mid-60s quintet came to an end with the departure of Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Chick Corea (electric piano) and Dave Holland (bass) filled their spots, and Jack DeJohnette was about to be prepped as Tony Williams’ replacement on drums. But working bands aside, Miles’ studio efforts in the late 1960s started to become a “laboratory” involving various players. Hancock would return on occasion, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul and guitarist John McLaughlin also made appearances with Miles during this time. Along with the personnel, the music was in transition. Davis had moved on from acoustic, swinging, small-band jazz into uncharted fusion territory.

The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions
Sept 1968-Feb 1969 / Columbia

Tucked away at the end of this 3-disc collection is the In A Silent Way album (recorded in February of 1969), one of the landmark recordings of nascent fusion. Swirling, swaying, keyboard-heavy canvases support some of Miles’ most considered trumpet playing. The 18-minute “Shhh/Peaceful” rides a soothing hi-hat and acoustic bass pulse, swathed in the triple keyboards of Corea, Hancock, and Zawinul. John McLaughlin noodles on clean guitar and Wayne Shorter starts courting the soprano saxophone. Miles’ entrance on “Shhh/Peaceful” is both nonchalant and dramatic; his light tone matches the fabrics behind it and is appropriately cautious for someone treading unexplored terrain. The music stays glued to a specific tonic and pulse, even as the keyboards tug gently in other directions, and the soloists are free to indulge any melodic whims they wish. Without any real theme, the track takes the form of one long continuum.

The second half of the Silent Way album begins and ends with the same four-minute take of Zawinul’s title theme, in which McLaughlin, Shorter, and Miles each state a plaintive melody over a droning bass note in drumless space. Between the “Silent Way” bookends is “It’s About That Time”, a teeming mosaic with steady rhythm, yet there’s a secondary bassline that gives the soloists a second gear. The main chordal vamp is very cool, and Chick Corea would allude to it in a later Return to Forever piece. (So maybe he was partly responsible for it in the first place?) Tony Williams breaks out in a few places in “It’s About That Time”, although the drums are minimized in the mix, and this would be his last recording with Davis. Musically speaking, In a Silent Way is Miles’ simplest album - and every bit as accessible as Kind of Blue was for a different kind of jazz - and it’s his most evocative in some ways. The funny thing is that the band that could have kicked out the jams, so to speak, yet they instead opt for soft space.

The first two and a half discs of the box, meanwhile, chronicle the interim 1968-9 recordings that wound up on such LPs as Filles de Kilimanjaro, Water Babies, and Directions. Miles incorporates a rock/R&B influence into much of the material, especially as far as the intended rhythms and harmonies go. I say “intended” because these are still jazz players who cannot resist embellishing the basic ideas, which in turn dilutes the full assimilation of the pop grooves, for better or worse. Most of these tracks are clearly experimental templates. Off we go, in chronny order:

“Mademoiselle Mabry”: The new quintet is put through a strange pace on this Davis original, which involves a lot of fragmentary chord movement with Williams’ drums filling the gaps. Only when Miles and Wayne solo does the background begin to make sense. After many years of listening to it, I’m still not sure of Mabry’s ultimate value - it seems very arbitrary in construction - but credit to Davis for trying to create something new. And it’s an interesting way to close the Filles De Kilimanjaro album, where it appeared with the next track.

“Frelon Brun”: Another Davis original, sort of a jazz-funk-soul mutant. The melody is attractive, but the bass figures and chords (just asinine clusters, really) reek of arbitrariness. Tony Williams is far too restless a drummer to lock into a convincing beat, no matter what strict bassline is in place. Miles solos as if this is an important piece, Wayne fakes his way through it, and Corea is left with what is surely his weakest recorded solo ever. He struggles to find anything to play over the childish chords, and he’s also saddled with an el-cheapo electric piano sound, like a Rhodes knockoff with a harpsichord hangover. (“Hey Chick, we rented a real hoss for you.”) Not a very progressive track, although it’s endurable in the context of the Kilimanjaro LP.

“Two Faced”: A moody Wayne Shorter piece dressed up in what I suspect is Miles’ arrangement. Bass and electric piano snake around in the track’s overture, which also serves as interlude to the solos. The main theme is a haunting two-note figure (played in canon by Miles and Wayne), followed by a loose solo section grounded by Dave Holland’s bass. Ghostly chords drip down the background walls as the solos further the desolate feel of the piece. The most interesting thing about the performance is how Williams adjusts his drumming to each soloist: he gives Miles lots of space, he engages the twin piano solo (Hancock and Corea) with quick snare/hi-hat wristwork, and he backs Shorter with a clamped hi-hat pulse and tom rolls.

“Dual Mr. Anthony Tillman Williams Process”: As with “Two Faced”, this first appeared on the 1976 compilation Water Babies. At 13 minutes, the music is as jampacked as the title, a convoluted sequence that never stays in one spot for very long, and this nervous motion clouds whatever groove was envisioned in the first place. It sounds like an unnecessarily complex version of ‘60s pop rather than a fused future.

“Splash”: An opening fanfare introduces jazzified pop beats in 5/4. The soloists bounce between I and IV chords, testing a new jazz thesis and coming up fettered. “Splash” doesn’t set any solid direction, although it’s fun in a goofy way. An edited version first appeared on 1979’s Circle in the Round.

“Splashdown”: Previously unreleased more of the same. The track sounds unfinished, especially when the keyboards repeat a particular segment over and over. This stuff is seriously starting to be a waste of Wayne Shorter’s time. This and the preceding two tracks are interesting in an historical way, but they’re hardly a musical advance upon such works as “Tout de Suite” or “Petits Machins”.

“Ascent”: In which Joe Zawinul is recruited as both keyboardist and composer. Like Shorter, Zawinul is a jazz writer of the first water. Unfortunately, whatever impact “Ascent” might have in bare form is lost in a languid purgatory of electric pianos, bass, and percussion. The first four and a half minutes are like a soundtrack to the eeriest Mr. Rogers episode ever, after which Shorter’s soprano doesn’t bring the piece much focus. Only when Miles appears does the track get its bearings, although it makes no lasting impression.

“Directions I”: A much more aggressive, rock-based Zawinul theme. Adopted by Miles as a live set-opener, it would also become a staple for Shorter and Zawinul in Weather Report. As with so many Zawinul themes, the bass notes are essential to the effect of the top melody. “Directions” begins with an anthemic kickoff and then locks into a driving bassline for trumpet, soprano sax, and electric piano (Corea) solos. I like the little Wayne lick (at 3:29) that folds against the meter. Drummer Jack DeJohnette thrashes beyond the call of duty, but Tony probably would have done the same thing.

“Directions II”: This take adds an introductory section before the main theme. The good thing about these two studio versions is that they’re at a tempo where the theme makes sense, as opposed to the speedy live versions. On the other hand, both of these takes taper off rather than return to the top, which is a little disappointing.

“Shhh/Peaceful”: In the middle of Disc 2, we’re given some raw tapes from the Silent Way sessions. The biggest revelation is that “Shhh/Peaceful” originally had an elaborate ensemble theme that was edited out for the original album, leaving only the keyboard and hi-hat groove. I don’t know why the exposition was removed; maybe Miles didn’t like what he had written? It’s good! In any case, it tells of working methods to come, with the musicians recording reels of raw material for producer Teo Macero edit into shape. The album version has a special feeling, but I’m equally convinced by this full version, a few rehearsal burps notwithstanding.

“In a Silent Way” (rehearsal): Here’s the Zawinul classic in its original arrangement with full chord and bassline changes. Comparing this version to Miles’ re-arrangement - which eliminates the chord movement - shows how bass notes and harmony can drastically change the impact of a given melody. Instead of repeating the same master take at the beginning and end of Side 2, I think the album should have included this version in one of their places - preferably to kick off the album side. The contrast would have been very effective.

“It’s About That Time”: Exactly the same music as the LP master, just in a slightly different order. Teo’s album edit moved a segment of Miles’ solo to the front of the track to give the illusion of an exposition. Still a cool piece in whichever form you hear it.

“The Ghetto Walk”: Previously unreleased Miles original with Joe Chambers in the drum seat. A lazy, hazy, soulful jam with plenty of chord movement (in the theme, at least) and a pearly half-melody. All the themes and solos tally up to 26 minutes. Chopped to ten minutes, it would be more effective, and it would have fit the sound and style of Bitches Brew.

“Early Minor”: A minor masterpiece from Zawinul’s pen and the rarity gem of the collection. The lyrical yet mysterious nature of the music fits Miles perfectly. Every so often, an ultra-cool shimmering keyboard hook emerges from the subdued backdrop, while the bridge ascends beautifully. Considering how well this track achieves the sound Miles was after, it’s surprising that it went unreleased until this box set appeared.

This brings us back to the In a Silent Way album at the end of Disc 3. If I sound less than enthusiastic about some of the above tracks, it’s because I’m critiquing them in isolation. In the larger context, they all have their place, assuming that trial and error is part of creativity. Miles wanted to break out of jazz, having taken it to a limit with his ‘60s quintet, and ditties like “Splash” and jams like “Ghetto Walk” make tentative steps forward. So in the ongoing Miles story, this box fills some gaps, and it’s got a few outstanding sideline tracks to go along with the title album. Work in progress - career in progress.

Package notes: The liner essay includes quotes from the musicians involved and also details a few of the strange tune structures, like “Mabry” and “Ghetto Walk”. (Even on paper, they still look arbitrary.)

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