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Music Review: From The Miles Files: The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (1968-’69)

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In 2001, Columbia released a three CD set, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions by Miles Davis (it was reissued again three years later). Not every box set containing a bunch of 18 minute outtakes is worth the $40-$50 asking price. But this one is.

This collection of recordings documents an important turning point in the history of jazz. To the innovative trumpeter it was literally the demarcation line between his acoustic, straight jazz up to that time and the electric jazz-rock fusion played almost exclusively to the time of his death in 1991.

The tracks represent his entire recorded output in chronological order from September, 1968 until February, 1969. It was during a period where Miles was on a major creative roll. He had seen his former protege' Cannonball Adderley become increasingly popular during the sixties when he blended R&B into his jazz. Miles wanted to reach a larger audience, too, but instead of looking to Ray Charles for inspiration, he used the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone for his own template.

The proceedings get started with a couple of recordings from the transitional Filles Des Kiliminjaro, where the electric piano is used in place of acoustic, but still sounding much like his prior work. Then there are tracks that never made it into any proper album and a few were previously unreleased altogether. Following those are the actual initial recordings for In A Silent Way. And finally, the finished recordings of IASW itself. Throughout it all, we see Miles start out still solidly on the jazz side and then move well into the rock side before finally settling on the perfect blend of the two. It's like being present in a mad scientist's laboratory as he cooks up a mind boggling invention. But there is absolutely no fluff, no filler, not even among the rejected tracks.

It was also during the middle of this time frame when Miles brings in Joe Zawinul from Cannonball's band and a little-known studio guitarist from England named John McLaughlin. Both helped to bring about an immediate change in his sound and move him along in the direction he wantec to go.

Zawinul, of course, ends up composing the beautiful title track. But what we learn from these complete recordings is that the song was originally recorded with a more conventional arrangement, with a light Brazilian feel to it. The final version removes the rhythm altogether, letting the piece float freely, suspended from timekeeping. It gave the song an entirely different vibe, one that emphasized mood and texture over melody and improvisation. While the previous version was fine, the one that made the final cut made the song unforgettable. True genius.

We also learn the other track on the finished album "Shhh/Peaceful" had a previously unknown bridge that was eventually edited out. The effect of the edit was to give the tune a darker overtone. To compensate for the loss in length from taking out the bridge, producer Teo Macero just looped the remainder of the recording, giving it its hypnotic effect.

I could leave you snippets (and if you really gotta do that, there’s always AMG or Amazon) but they don’t do these songs justice; these pieces develop gradually and it takes a while to wrap you mind around them. But your patient listening is rewarded in spades. Here’s a fairly quick rundown of the rest of the song lineup:

Starting with disc one, “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brown” are the two last tracks recorded for the aforementionedFilles de Kilimanjaro and have a vague, soul feel to them but still solidly in the jazz camp. “Two Faced” is a free floating song like “Mabry” but better realized. “Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process” abandons jazz almost entirely in favor of a twist-like groove, as the songs namesake seems to relish the chance to delve into pop rhythms while the two keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and acoustic bassist Dave Holland cut loose with some funky vamps.

This tune and “Two Faced” marked the first time where Miles used multiple keyboardists, a configuration that played a major part in shaping Miles’ distinctive heavy sound of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. “Splash” consolidates ideas presented in the prior two songs, while “Splashdown” introduces Zawinul and a three keyboard lineup.

“Ascent”, which begins disc two, is where Zawinul begins to have a real impact on the proceedings, because it’s the first composition he contributed. And it’s a lovely, ambient piece (note, Brian Eno fans, this is perhaps the first modern ambient song ever recorded).

The next Zawinul piece, “Directions” (I and II) is another milestone, for it’s here where Miles replaces Williams with another great drummer, Jack deJohnette, and his first assignment is to propel “Directions” with an urgent, hard rocking rhythm. The song also has a recognizable theme providing a touchstone between extended solos and was in the Davis concert canon for years to come.

The remainder of disc two is unedited/rehearsal versions of the songs that ended up on the final product. These February, 1969 sessions ushers in the John McLaughlin era and for the first time, Miles found a guitarist who fit his vision to play the instrument without any preconceptions. It’s also here we finally get to hear the “clutter” of chords Davis removed to leave us with the sparse structure of the release versions. And while Miles achieved his aim of starkly beautiful music, what was left on Macero’s cutting room floor remains far more interesting than much of all the other experimental music being created at that time…largely because it sounds suspended from time.

And lastly, the Officially Released In A Silent Way album is the third disc.

These recordings offer an intriguing glimpse into the musical mind of Miles Davis in a way my words can't come close to describing. The changing cast of musicians were all among the best in the business at the time, and do a great job in making the old master's vision a reality. Just about everything Miles Davis has recorded since then is rooted in this product of four months in the studio. And arguably, so is just about all of fusion from everybody else, for that matter.

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  • Mark Saleski

    nice review pico…..i really, really, really need to get this. Silent Way is an electric Miles favorite of mine.

  • SHARK

    Nice review. Historic stuff.

    I musta listened to “In a Silent Way” a million times during my college days — um, nights.

    Thanks for the heads up on the new box set.

    PS: I can play the bass line in the title track!

    heh.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Thanks for friendly feedback guys.

    I actually did play drums on the title track ;&)

    -P