Recording In a Silent Way, Miles Davis paved the way to electric jazz in February 1969. Qwest TV takes a closer look to the story of this revolutionary album.

In his autobiography Miles Davis tells many interesting tales, some more economic with the truth than others. The following feels like anything but fake news: after he is patronized by a white woman in a public place, the black trumpeter re-inflates his self-esteem by asking what she has done with her life, what are her achievements?

He has changed the course of music history at least four times. All clued-up scholars would concur. But the central question is exactly when? Such is the abundance of outstanding artistic statements made by Davis between the 50s and 90s, and more to the point the constant flow of visionary ideas, it is hard to pinpoint precise lines of demarcation between periods in his musical life, or chapters in his epic creative story.

Released in 1969 In A Silent Way is largely seen as the work that ushers in the age of ‘Electric Miles’ and jazz-rock. However, the key to understanding the significance of the music is to see its place in the sequence of albums that includes Miles In The Sky and Filles De Kilimanjaro, both issued in 1968. These three jewels shine deliciously over the grey area between what critics and record industry executives would call post-bop, modal jazz and fusion. In other words this is a moment of evolution and transition during which Davis investigated form and content in his work in order to create something in step with the times and to stave off his absolute fear of sounding old. Tellingly, he elected to make albums under the banner: ‘new directions in music.’

The aforementioned studio sessions are bound by a distinctive sound world that ensured the modernity Davis sought. His glorious post-war albums such as Milestones, Sketches Of Spain, Kind Of Blue and E.S.P all secured him a place in the pantheon of acoustic music, but Miles In The Sky marked his increasingly strong, if not irresistible attraction to electric instruments. It featured two devices manufactured by the legendary Leo Fender – the bass guitar and Rhodes piano – would become of the utmost importance in the progressive sonic environment Davis duly fashioned.

By deciding to ‘plug in’ Davis was able to broaden the textural scope of his arrangements and also challenge the musicians with whom he had had lengthy associations.

Pianist Herbie Hancock had been an integral member of Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet’ in the mid 60s where his beautiful touch and harmonic ingenuity had played a crucial role in creating music with a deeply flexible, shape-shifting character. But on Miles In The Sky and Filles De Kilimanjaro Hancock played Rhodes as well as acoustic piano, and the results were strikingly dramatic. The dense and dark resonance of the electric piano, which draws a kind of vapor trail around the band through the additional sustain of the notes, had a profound impact on the music. This keyboard, in the hands of as gifted a player as Hancock, imbued the overall sound of the band with a distinctly mysterious, shadowy sub-text, as if the time of day the music evoked was caught somewhere between late dusk and early nightfall. In A Silent Way was tantamount to the sun setting on a corner of earth full of sombre hues.

What gave further substance to the material on the album was Davis’ decision to bring fresh players into the fold. The likes of Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams, also established Davis collaborators, were joined by new individuals who lent an international flavour to the ensemble: American pianist Chick Corea, Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul and two young Britons, guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Dave Holland. In other words there was a multi-cultural and inter-generational coterie of players that was assembled on In A Silent Way, which foretold of a greater universalism in the world of jazz, epitomized by Weather Report and Return To Forever, the super groups subsequently formed by Zawinul and Corea.

In February 1969 these musicians came together for a session at the CBS studio on 30th street New York – where Davis had cut Kind Of Blue ten years before – and generated three hours worth of tape that contained the basic tracks of “Shhh/Peaceful Now,” “In A Silent Way” and “It’s About That Time.” The first and last pieces were penned by Davis and the second, the title track to Zawinul, but, accreditation aside, the real point about the music was that it had an overarching collective strength that somehow managed to sit well with the strong presence of each individual member of the band.

Stylistically, the results were groundbreaking due to the questions Davis asked of some supposedly sacrosanct principles in jazz.

The songs had an elliptical, sketch-like feel to them that emphasized how much restraint the band could exercise, as well as its degree of improvisatory flourish, thus creating the sensation that the players were giving as much expression as possible to song structures that were almost embryonic rather than displaying ‘chops’ over changes as a means of generating emotional heat. Hence the order of the day is vamps, grooves, pedal point and a daring welter of metronomic pressure, best encapsulated by the drum-like triplets Holland plays against Williams’ spring-loaded rimshots, which are almost the relentless ticking of a clock in an airless room. The magic also appeared in the resonant motifs, particularly the irresistible curling theme of “It’s About That Time,” which is both sensual and sinister. Such is the tension stoked by the contained, pared down nature of the arrangements, in which the bulk of the phrasing is short, there is an enormous sensory release that washes right through the music when this longer line starts to unwind. It is almost the equivalent of a holler from a mouth that has hitherto been clamped shut.

The decision to deploy Zawinul on organ reinforces this imagery insofar as his subtle chords are the hiss and hum that are part of the struggle against the wall of silence.
Then again Davis’ trumpet brings a real surge of feeling to the table because of its overwhelmingly rich melodic character as well as the commanding nature of his tone. If there is a vaguely ancestral, almost medieval ambience created at times then Davis is the herald, summoning both princes and commoners alike with his balladic brass.

In A Silent Way is thus a triumph of musical intelligence and intuition. And it is also a forewarning of the importance of post-production and the primacy of manipulating a performance after the players have left the studio or stage. Indeed the bandmember who was not quite a bandmember but who made a game-changing contribution to the album was the revered Teo Macero. Although officially called a producer in the late ‘60s, Macero would be more akin to a remixer in the language of the hip-hop and electronic artists of the millennium because of his invaluable work in editing and splicing together passages of the original audio to make a remarkably coherent programme, which, though relatively brief by today’s standards, did not want for any narrative strength. Everything that needs to be heard is heard in just over 38 minutes.

Not for nothing is the work called In A Silent Way. Zawinul’s deeply moving theme had obvious anti-war connotations, given that it was contemporaneous to the bloody tragedy of Vietnam, Biafra and other global conflicts. Yet there is perhaps a more lateral treatise on the world of the music, and its bi-polarity of soft and loud, mellow and intense. Davis cut The Birth Of The Cool in 1949, and here he was in 1969 piping things down just as the Woodstock festival was cranking them up. He understood the blues, and he fully understood that a whisper could be just as powerful as a scream.

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union