Another Miles classic re-excavated with grand results. In A Silent Way was an astonishing step further towards a fusion of jazz and rock for Miles Davis, and for jazz in general, when it was released in 1969. The acoustic instruments of Davis, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Tony Williams were combined with John McLaughlin’s electric guitar, Joe Zawinul’s organ, and the twin electric pianos of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Each LP side held a medley of two themes. Miles’ “Shhh/Peaceful” took up the 18-plus minutes of Side A, the dramatically tense motion sustained by Tony Williams’ relentless train-pulse. (The track’s original title, in fact, was “Fast Train From Memphis to Harlem”.) Side B began with Zawinul’s lovely title tune, buoyed by a bass drone and sporadic keyboard pulses. Partway through the proceedings, the more ominous minor theme of Miles’ “It’s About That Time” emerged, a subtle but telling change of mood. Both sides featured virtuosic playing by all the musicians involved, particularly the still-unfamiliar McLaughlin. It was a clarion call to forward-minded players and fans, a firm indication that the new music could indeed be successfully combined with the old. The following year Miles, in similar company, would issue the landmark Bitches Brew and forever change the jazz landscape.
As part of their Legacy imprint, Columbia Records and reissue producer Bob Belden have been dusting off many fusion gems from the label’s archives over the past year-plus. Several Davis sessions have been remastered and augmented with rare tracks, as have classics discs from Al DiMeola, Jaco Pastorius and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions is the latest jewel in the Legacy crown.
The three discs in this set contain sessions from a six-month period (September ’68 to February ’69) when Miles was experimenting heavily with electronic instrumentation in a jazz context. The first two selections, “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brun”, were used to round out the Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Other tracks from these sessions were released much later, when Columbia occasionally swept the floor and slapped “new” Miles albums together: “Dual Mr. Anthony...” and Shorter’s “Two Faced” on Water Babies (’76); “Splash” in edited form on Circle in the Round (’79); and Zawinul’s “Ascent” and “Directions” on Directions (’81). Other tracks are heard here for the first time, and their quality makes us wonder why. In finally hearing this continuum of music in the order in which the pieces were recorded, the progression from the forbidding modality of the Shorter/Williams acoustic band to the eventual funk-rock mayhem of Bitches Brew is made especially clear. Only a few short, trifling interludes from these sessions are now left unreleased.
“Mabry” and “Frelon Brun” both contain definite reflections of the acoustic modal period that had preceded the 9/68 session. Corea’s electric piano is the only plugged-in instrument, so the vibe of the unplugged band still resonates. Hancock was added on a second electric piano in November. His sound adds some conflict and texture to “Two Faced”, but the sense of tensile moodiness is much the same. “Dual...” is refreshing in its quick, almost gospel-tinged spirit, as if the epiphany of jazz electrification had lifted a burden from Miles’ soul. Though Zawinul had yet to join Davis’ group, it sounds similar to the soulful jazz he had been performing with Cannonball Adderley, as does “Splash”, present here in its full ten-minute form. Davis’ solo on “Splash” is invigorating and spry; Shorter’s subsequent tenor solo sounds rather tentative by comparison. “Splashdown”, which closes Disc 1, was recorded two weeks later with Zawinul on organ, providing the first full blossoming of the electric band’s real potential. The rhythms on this track are a bit sloppy, which might be the reason for its prior unrelease, but it’s still an interesting document of the changes that Zawinul’s introduction brought about.
Two days later, Jack DeJohnette aptly substituted for Williams in the studio as the band recorded Joe Zawinul’s “Ascent” and the two parts of “Directions”. The first track is dreamlike and quiet, with its Leslie’d electric piano vibrations and Teo Macero sitting in on tambourine. The blending of the electric pianos and organ creates a dazzling wall of sound that engulfs the listener. Part one of “Directions” has juggernaut impact, inspiring Miles to wild-eyed flights of fancy; part two is only slightly tamer. Simply astonishing.
Tony Williams returned to the studio in February ’69 to record the meat of what would eventually be released on In A Silent Way. The forty minutes of music taped then are presented on Disc 2 in their entirety. The full take of “Shhh/Peaceful” runs a bit over nineteen minutes, and it’s largely similar to the final album edit. Next comes a short, beautiful rehearsal take of “It’s A Silent Way”. The sound quality is a bit off, but the track is good enough to have been a radio single. The final four-minute take of “Silent Way” follows, then 11 1/2 minutes of the shadowy “It’s About That Time”. Those tracks were edited by Macero, with various extractions and repetitions, to form the final album versions on Disc 3 of this set. Though little of value was lost in the editing process, it’s gratifying to hear the original takes, just for the record.
Besides the album takes, Disc 3 holds two special treasures. It opens with a long, blues-inflected stroll called “The Ghetto Walk” that’s worth the price of this set in itself. While the band perhaps doesn’t venture out very far, this extended jam gives everyone a chance to shine and explore the blues to the very depths of their imaginations. It’s fabulous as an exercise in tension and release alone, not to mention the excellent solos by McLaughlin and Shorter before the pace slows down at about nine minutes. The snail’s-pace sections, wherein Davis is especially featured, are rather reminiscent of Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. The other unreleased track on Disc 3 is “Early Minor”, a seven-minute diamond that features Shorter’s lovely soprano up front.
While some of the Columbia/Legacy reissues are arguably more for completists than for average jazz fans, there are certainly many valuable moments to enjoy in The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions. It sheds new light on the various directions that Miles was considering in the period, smooths out some rough jumps in his discography, and offers a glimpse at the evolution of these fairly timeless sessions. Essential.
Personnel: (Collective:) Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor and soprano saxophones; Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, electric piano, organ; Herbie Hancock, electric piano; John McLaughlin, electric guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Chambers, drums; Teo Macero, tambourine.