[23 October 2002]
The reason a lot of people don’t like post swing era jazz is the same reason they don’t like a lot of supposedly good literature; it takes too much thought, a thorough knowledge of what has come before, and the patience of a saint to appreciate it. And it comes off, quite often, like one big inside joke. Miles Davis, though at times musically exclusive, was one of the few jazz artists of the second half of the 20th century who somehow managed to make albums that were both accessible to the masses and appealing to the informed. In a Silent Way was one such album. Filles De Kilimanjaro and Water Babies do not fall into this category. They are, however, interesting in the sense that they allow the listener a glimpse of the process through which Miles Davis and his illustrious musical companions went, a process that ultimately ushered in a new era in improvisational music which came to be known as jazz-rock fusion. Digitally remastered and restored versions of all three albums have recently been released on Sony’s Columbia/Legacy Jazz label.
Released in January of 1969, Filles De Kilimanjaro exhibits Davis’s first, rather tentative dabblings with the funky grooves and sensibilities of the rock and soul music of the mid- to late ‘60s, particularly those of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. One need listen rather closely, though, to detect these influences. It seems Miles and his cohorts believed that simply using an electric piano, electric bass, and jamming forever on something like a rock beat would elicit the desired effect. Instead, most of the tracks on this album, beginning with the first miserable attempt at something funky and simple on “Frelon Brun”, come off sounding stiff and formal, like classical musicians trying to play jazz for the first time. The personnel are a veritable who’s who list of the musicians who would become the major figures of improvised music in the next two decades. On three out of five tracks we have Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Ron Carter on electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Chick Corea replaces Hancock and Dave Holland replaces Ron Carter on the remaining two tracks. The bonus track on Filles, an alternate version of “Tout De Suite”, is the more exciting of the two and should be of interest to the collector.
In a Silent Way, one of Davis’s greatest achievements, was recorded in February of 1969. Here we have Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric pianos, Joe Zawinul on organ, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, Dave Holland on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. It is the addition of the electric guitar that finally breathes life into Davis’s attempts at adapting to the musical environment of the late ‘60s. McLaughlin’s meditative and at times frenetic and explosive guitar work adds a dimension to Davis’s music that is revelatory. The result is sheer beauty and inspiration. One wonders, in regard to Filles, how Davis could have conceived a rock influenced album without the inclusion of the electric guitar. It seems, in retrospect, a monumental oversight on his part.
The album opens with the audacious organ of Joe Zawinul and the slightly out of tune but confident electric guitar of John McLaughlin on a composition entitled “Shhh/Peaceful”. One is immediately transfixed by these sounds and the musical dialogue that ensues. There is no tentativeness here, only the exuberance of discovery displayed time and time again over the machine-gun-like rat-a-tat-tat of Williams’s high hat and the rock solid drone of Holland’s driving bass. The second and final track, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time”, is broken up into three parts, like a concerto. It begins with a hypnotic chord melody played by McLaughlin, aided by studio editing. He is ultimately joined by Shorter, who picks up the melody line on soprano sax. The second part, “It’s About That Time”, begins as a funky jam with Davis’s horn soaring high above, emitting bluesy proclamations, as if to say it might have taken him a while to catch on but that he’s got it now and is here to stay. A dissonant chord progression played on the electric piano follows. McLaughlin takes his turn commenting, and eventually Shorter does the same. Finally, Davis, the master, leads us back to “In a Silent Way” and the delicate, reassuring, and warm chord melody played by McLaughlin.
Like Davis’s album Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way transcends labels. It is neither jazz nor rock. It isn’t what will eventually become known as fusion, either. It is something altogether different, something universal. There is a beautiful resignation in the sounds of this album, as if Davis is willingly letting go of what has come before, of his early years with Charlie Parker, with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, of his early ‘60s work, and is embracing the future, not only of jazz, but of music itself. On this album Davis also embraces the marriage of music and technology. The studio editing of Teo Macero helped greatly in achieving the final form that In a Silent Way took. In the reissue liner notes John Ephland wrote. “For jazz, it is the emergence of producer as artist.”
Water Babies, released in 1976, at the beginning of what for Miles Davis would be a five year hiatus from recording and touring, is a collection of unused tracks from the Nefertiti and Filles De Kilimanjaro recording sessions. As one might expect, the album is unfocused, much like a huge, sprawling literary work that rambles on in beautiful prose but never seems to make its point. The title track and first tune on the album wanders aimlessly. “Capricorn”, the next track, is hard bop at its most self-indulgent. Songs like these give jazz a bad name and elicit frustrating responses from newcomers to jazz like “My four year old could play that” or “I don’t get it.” The thing is, with “Capricorn” and four out of the six tracks here, there is nothing to get. These are bad songs and lackluster performances. Digital remastering has only made it clearer why Miles Davis left these recordings off his albums in the first place. The only two tracks worth a listen are “Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process”, the title, irritatingly, some kind of inside joke, and the bonus track, “Splash”. Both are funky and fun and hint at the wonderful music Miles Davis will be making in upcoming months with In a Silent Way and the legendary Bitches Brew.
Original liner notes are included on all three albums as well as excellent and informative new essays which give the listener historical perspective and insight. All three albums have been digitally remastered by Mark Wilder and co-produced for reissue by Michael Cuscuna and Bob Belden.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/davismiles-water/