Sunday, July 5, 2015

Miles Davis: In a Silent Way

Saxophonist Bob Belden died a few weeks back and, while he was a well-known and respected musician, he also was a contributor to some of the remarkable box sets issued by Sony/Columbia Records regarding the music of the great Miles Davis.

One of the sets in which Belden made a significant contribution concerns one of the great Davis recordings, 1969's In a Silent Way.  This album marked Davis's first extensive use of electric instrumentation, but it also represented a shift in composing style and recording techniques employed by the trumpeter and his long-time producer, Teo Macero.

What is striking about this album compared to recent Davis releases with his great quintet (Hancock, Carter, Williams and Shorter) and anything else from the period is not so much that he used electric instruments, but that he created a type of sound that was more atmospheric and groove-oriented.

Bassist Dave Holland, whose dexterity, speed and power have been amply demonstrated elsewhere, plays highly repetitive lines here, but it's perfectly in service to the music Davis orchestrated.  Tony Williams, whose mastery of the cymbals was exceptional, largely plays that part of his kit for the recording, excepting towards the end of the recording.  Keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, all brilliant players, are primarily concerned with laying down the ambiance that anchors the album.

The soloists are Davis, Wayne Shorter and, getting his first major exposure in the music world, the incredible John McLaughlin on guitar.  The interplay between Shorter and Davis, honed over just beyond four years of working together, is clear and precise.  Hearing the two, though, with the five-man rhythm section playing the way they did, is fresh and new compared to the quintet music that preceded this record.

McLaughlin is really, however, the linchpin of this record.  His guitar work is at times subtle, at other times direct, and usually inventive and unique.  He expanded his sonic palette on the phenomenal Bitches Brew, along with an augmented and beefed up ensemble that Davis employed.  On In a Silent Way, though, Laughlin gets more of the spotlight because of the way the sound was constructed.

Another key player is producer Teo Macero, whose uncanny way of working with Davis's methods of recording and concepts behind the music often generated some remarkable results.  Macero's edits are sometimes very jarring, as is the case with side two's In a Silent Way/It's About That Time, but his work deserves praise for the creative way in which he stitched the recordings together.  This process became more marked with subsequent records and it has been hotly debated whether there was merit in much of this.  Clearly, though, Davis wanted Macero to work in this way and, on this record, the results are excellent.

This may not be an apt corollary, but, to this listener, there is something about this record that is akin to the Birth of the Cool recordings.  It is probably more in the general sound and tempo--in which the ambiance and mid-tempo stylings are effected.  Yet, the album is anything but a reference to the past, at least not directly.  Instead, it is an emphatic nod (and it is subtle, like a nod--whereas Bitches Brew was a direct shake of the yead) toward the future.

Miles did what he needed to do after several years with the quintet to move his music in a different direction, but, in doing so, he incorporated the spirit of (and, often, direct connections to) rock, soul, pop and modern classical music.

In a Silent Way was an almost ambient way to chart new directions, where Bitches Brew was a powerful pathbreaking effort.  They are perfect companions to show where, 20 years in as a leader, Miles was going to go next.  He was called a sellout for using electric instruments and making references to popular and other forms of music.  But, how can you sell out, when you're making album long sides of 20 minutes or more?

Miles wasn't selling out, he was moving on.  The fact that he could do so, once again changing his style, personnel, composing, production and editing, and image and create another chapter in his career, when most of his contemporaries were still playing the same way they had done in the Forties, Fifties or early Sixties is testament to his greatness.  In a Silent Way is an amazing record, somewhat overshadowed by Bitches Brew, when, perhaps, it should be seen as a precursor and direct linkage.

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