When people malign Miles Davis, and when the slurs aren’t directed at his latter-day forays into pop reinterpretation or his ill-advised pre-death dalliance with hip-hop, they often cite his role in the creation of fusion.
Were Miles truly indictable for such a crime, such damnation would be entirely justified. But that’s like blaming God for the transgressions of Adam and Eve. He might have put that snake in the apple tree, but he didn’t force Eve to take a bite. Likewise, Miles might have created the environment in which fusion was birthed, but he can’t be held responsible for the transgressions of excess committed by those once in his employ.
While it’s always hard to pinpoint the moment when a new sub-genre begins, you would do worse than to consider Davis’s In a Silent Way disc as the petri dish in which fusion sprang to life. Following on the experiments in modal music-making he began on Kind of Blue, on In a Silent Way, Davis continued to strip his tunes down to their essence. But unlike the former disc, where he eschewed chord changes, on the latter, he stripped away everything in search of a groove. He enhanced that feel by adding young, rock-minded players to his group, and thus, jazz-rock was born.
On the new Complete In a Silent Way Sessions box set from Columbia Records — the label’s most recent set in its laudable and voluminous attempt to compartmentalize Davis’s long, complex career into more manageable segments –listeners can see the transition from one era to the next. The box set compiles tracks recorded over the course of six months, from September 1968 to February 1969, with a set of players that shifted from being Davis’s second classic quartet to the foundation for the group that recordedBitches Brew. It includes tracks that made up all or part of In a Silent Way, Filles de Kilimanjaro, Water Babies and Directions, as well as three previously unreleased tunes.
Hearing this music all in one place, chronologically, it’s easy to see how rock influences start to color, then ultimately dominate, Davis’s sound. Yet while his followers — who include Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Circle) and John McLaughlin (the Mahavishnu Orchestra) — took the idea of jazz rock to illogical extremes in their own post-Davis combos, Miles succeeds where so many fail because he plays his rock-inflected jazz with the same nuanced restraint he brought to other ground-breaking efforts like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue. While frenzy seemed to be the norm for the fusion that followed, Miles seemed to realize that the groove was all he needed to borrow from rock.
It is said that Davis felt the need to connect with a black audience, seeing his former sextet member Cannonball Adderley score hits with funky tunes like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (written, it should be noted, by keyboardist Zawinul, who soon after joined Davis’s band). Over the course of these six months, he integrated that groove into his songs, from the opening tunes here, “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brun”, which were used to flesh out Filles de Kilimanjaro, through to the sound’s fruition on the completed In a Silent Way tracks. He integrates the rhythms of rock into the band’s sound, and allows that groove to flourish by stripping out everything else save for his long, languid solos.
The set highlights many important elements to Davis’s evolving sound: that aforementioned quest to strip songs down to their essential parts, his shift from acoustic to electric-based music, his choice of sidemen who best play that type of music, and, in turn, his way of coaxing the best music from those sidemen.
This six-month period begins with a session by Davis’s long-time quintet with drummer Williams, saxophone player Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock. By its end, he has replaced Carter with Holland, subbed in Jack DeJohnette for Williams in spots, and introduced additional keyboard players Corea and Joe Zawinul and guitarist McLaughlin.
The result is a fully fleshed out sound where multiple parts played what is essentially a bass groove. While Holland drops a solid bass line into a track, Zawinul and Corea mimic and enhance it on organ and electric piano, respectively. Hancock, left free of his usual responsibilities to add to the rhythm, is able to provide subtle shading and color to the tunes. McLaughlin, meanwhile, noodles about above the fray, often playing the part a more frantic trumpet player might take. That leaves Shorter and Davis to solo freely from time to time, all propelled by Williams’s rock beats.
While there isn’t a bum note to be found on the three discs here, the right choice was made to focus the set on In a Silent Way. Not only is it clearly Davis’s most significant creation during this time span, but it is also the best. On the four tunes that make up the album –“Shh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time”, Davis took the strongest compositions, stripped them to their essence and nudged the players in a direction that would yield the best results. His producer, Teo Macero, meanwhile, acts much like a film editor, taking raw performance and crafting a finished product from the pieces.
The liner notes by Bob Belden are extensive, shedding real light on the sessions, particularly those for the In a Silent Way album. He offers some telling quotes about the material from some of the musicians, particularly about Davis’s exceptional talent for finding the best song within a track: “Joe Zawinul had brought the tune in (“In a Silent Way”), and Miles, in one minute, had brought the real essence, the beauty out of it”, said McLaughlin.
“It was like he was the painter and his palette of colors consisted of the musicians he asked to come in to play. There was no written music that I can remember”, said Corea.
While Davis was able to strip existing compositions down, Macero was a master at using everything at his disposal to create a finished track. On In a Silent Way, he used 33 minutes of music to create a 40-minute album, and drew that 33 minutes from a possible 46 that were recorded. Some of the music he used included McLaughlin tuning up and trying to find the right chords to play. These tentative strums set a contemplative tone for the tune that follows. Those with any doubts about Macero’s skill should cue up the unedited tracks on disc two. While all the elements were there, without Macero’s guiding hand, the tracks sound unremarkable when compared to the music surrounding them. He shaped them into one of the best albums of Davis’s career.
The rest of the set collects unissued tracks, including the terrific tunes “The Ghetto Walk” and “Early Minor”, recorded, with drummer Joe Chambers sitting in for Williams, two days after the sessions that yielded In a Silent Way. “The Ghetto Walk”, in particular is a find, a 26-minute workout that finds the band in top form. Also included is the previously unissued “Splashdown”, a Davis composition recorded with Shorter, Corea, Hancock, Zawinul, Holland and Williams. It was Zawinul’s first session with Davis, recorded just two days before tracks like “Ascent” that wouldn’t surface until 1981’s Directions LP.
Bitches Brew may be better-selling and more well-known, but an argument can be made that In a Silent Way is the better, more focused Davis album from his early fusion period. Gathered together here, the music made during this six-month stretch is also arguably the equal of any music made during a similar time frame by any group, jazz or otherwise. It’s the ideal place to start for the fusion-phobic listener, and a must-have for any Davis fan.