Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way Turns 50

In 1969, the all-time great jazz musician released yet another remarkable, forward-thinking album. Joel Biswas explores.
By    December 3, 2019

Supporting the legends of this art form called music since 2005. Please support us here at Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Joel Biswas made some sketches of Spain and then erased them.

No 20th century artist embodied the idea of creative destruction more fully than Miles Davis. His plaintive voice on the trumpet stood in stark relief to his volcanic temperament and all-consuming drive for new modes of creation. In the words of collaborator Keith Jarrett, “Miles would rather have a bad band playing terrible music than play what he’d played before.” It was a principle and compulsion that Davis would explore to its absolute limits over the course of five decades during which he repeatedly took jazz to new pinnacles of the form only to zag away from respectability and once again reconfigure the possibilities of the music wholesale. 

But in 1967, Davis was 41. His last straight-head quintet of Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock was running out of steam. Jazz itself was increasingly lost in self-referential hall of mirrors, well outside of a zeitgeist of youthful radicalism and rock, pop and soul music in its boldest flowering.  He had a new muse, Betty Mabry – a 22 year old artist, downtown scenester and high-voltage beauty who’d already made an impression on the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Sly Stone and brought him into their circle. He also had a new generation of players like Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul to vibe with and who were fast emerging as influential voices on his initial forays into electrified sounds.

But when Miles, Zawinul and their new band of young turks arrived at Columbia’s Studio B on February 18th 1969 for the three hour session that would yield In a Silent Way, there was little in this genealogy of influences to suggest what a profound rupture with an established musical lineage this album would represent. Indeed, In a Silent Way would subvert the jazz and rock idioms it borrowed so completely as to produce something seemingly without precedent. 

Fifty years later, In a Silent Way remains a listening experience like no other. From a formal perspective the album plays as a series of tidal, nocturnal blues- soul-rock vamps that repeatedly build towards (or are punctured by) searching melodic ideas without ever reaching resolution. The hushed moments are often the most adorned and overwhelming, vibrating with the uneasy interplay of the three keyboardists and McLaughlin’s guitar – while the big crescendos present simple melodic ideas with a disconcerting frankness. It’s the sound of whispers that elude discernment and of fleeting revelations that can’t quite be grasped. It’s funky and foreboding, frequently beautiful and deeply unsettling.

Upon leaving the session, even the players themselves were unsure of what they just played and whether it was any good. Davis was of course operating at an altitude far above questions of “good.” Over the course of its two twenty minute sides, In a Silent Way instantly rendered endless debates about high and low art, the boundaries of genre or what jazz should be, moot. And though it took some critics years to notice the rug had been pulled, kids raised on rock didn’t need to have listened to “Seven Steps to Heaven” to recognise the sound of authentic transgression when they heard it. Miles was reborn a rock star and his electric bands quickly become stadium rock staples.

Today, In a Silent Way is the missing touchstone to so many subsequent musical innovations that to exhaustively delineate the shape of things to come that can be heard its textures is to arrive at some grand musical theory of universal connection that is as profound as it is trite. Suffice it to say, that it’s all here and more – the rushes and spaciousness of disco and house, the hypnotic stretched time of sampling, the panoramic scope and formalism of prog rock and jazz fusion and the conversational headiness of psychedelia. 

But the best corollary for what In a Silent Way is and how it works is Abstract Expressionism. The connection between jazz’s spontaneous on-the-spot invention and Abstract Expressionism’s process-as-subject-of-the-work wasn’t a new idea in 1969, but with “In a Silent Way” Miles Davis and long-time producer Teo Macero subverted the longstanding notion that jazz was a medium that granted the listener unusual permission to experience the process of art being made just as artist did.

The ebbs and movements of In a Silent Way’s musical grooves and solos play like an organic whole, except of course that they are not. In actual fact, Miles and Teo Macero borrow a trick from Steve Reich and George Martin and used the session recordings as raw material which they then assembled into a series of movements or progressions. A grace note becomes a motif, a fragment of improvised trumpet a fugue. It becomes impossible for the listener know what’s incidental and what’s intentional. We’re invited to listen closely to look for the seams and they are revealed to us, most prominently 12 minutes into “Shhhh… peaceful” when the groove is effectively rewound from where it began and allowed to play from the top, creating the appealing fiction that this shimmering tapestry of improvisation has been miraculously composed – and we embrace the fiction.

And this is real purpose of the album, hinted at in the names of its pieces and its title, a rare example of directness from an artist so inscrutable that at the height of his fame he’d play with his back to the audience; or who gave up playing ballads to go electric because he perceived his love for them to be a creative weakness. There is no critique of music past or present, no grand statement about the future of jazz, merely an uncomfortable question posed frankly. What do you really hear? Are you really listening? With In A Silent Way” Davis reminds us of the difficult truth that too often, what we look for and see in art is ourselves and that real artistic experience can only be found in the willingness to listen for what emerges from silence.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!