Miles Davis - In A Silent Way - Review
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critics' view

Perhaps the best (and certainly easiest) way to describe In a Silent Way is to call it Kind of Blue plus ten years of musical technology, but that'd be selling it short, wouldn't it" After all, force someone to casually listen to the latter and they might trick themselves into thinking it's "just another" jazz record. Which isn't too unreasonable, I guess: the album was mostly made up of conventional aspects of jazz music, from the instruments to the solos to the general "cool" atmosphere. Listen closer, though, and, innovations in modality aside (let's be honest, only a few of us know what that really means), there was certainly something different in the record that set it apart from jazz records prior: a sense of intimacy. The way in which the album was recorded almost let you visualize the music; the dark room being lit up by ecstatic soloists; the unfurling spaces between notes. All of this was delivered by way of jazz music so gorgeously written that the listener could only respond with wide-eyed wonder every time they heard it; a true revolution in aesthetic gratification not only for jazz but for music itself.

Still, after years of hearing similar "modal jazz" in smoky cafes and the like, one might need a little devoted inspection to see what really made the album special. This is in stark contrast to In a Silent Way, which almost certainly doesn't sound like most jazz you've heard. In the midst of the many things that Davis accomplished with writing and recording this album, perhaps the most important was practically inventing the fusion sub-genre of jazz by introducing "electric" elements to his cool jazz (such as electric guitar and keyboards). The sustained organ chord and single guitar arpeggio that open the album instantly start it off on a surprising note; a gorgeously mysterious and atypically ambiguous preface that wastes no time suddenly bursting a dense and surprisingly complex jam.

"Shhh/Peaceful", the opener and one of two tracks on the album, does an excellent job of showing what In a Silent Way is all about. The music here is much more thick and busy than Kind of Blue, with each instrument going every which way at almost any given time (though it never feels messy, like Bitches Brew later would). However, that same sense of pure musical marvel is still there: Miles' band (including Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock, among others) show finesse at sculpting gorgeous waves of sound while still making it seem spontaneous—which it almost certainly was, considering the album consisted mostly of drawn-out jam sessions stitched together by producer Ted Macero. 

"In a Silent Way/It's About That Time" is even better, flaunting one of the most effortlessly gorgeous introductions to a song ever: the song, for about four minutes, wallows in a drowsy pool of guitar, keys and trumpet, softly carving a dazzling bit of musical atmosphere without really needing to "go anywhere" (if you don't mind me over-extending a little bit, this could very well be seen as a stepping stone in what would later be called ambient music). Just as Kind of Blue was brilliant for evoking late-night fascination with modal structure, this song is for evoking that same feeling without structure. The intro breaks down jazz music to its basic components and has the genius idea to let them wade in their own juices before putting them back together again. The song, much like "Shh/Peaceful", then breaks into a jam that would make any group of stoners with guitars jealous. Melodies and motifs bounce off each other from one instrument to the next as the song moves from idea to idea, and it becomes apparent that these are excellent musicians at the top of their game, unafraid of what's next.

With In a Silent Way, Davis embraced the future of both jazz music and music itself, while still retaining the childlike enchantment of his past masterpieces. If only musicians of modern times retained this fearlessness, perhaps albums of this caliber could appear a little more often.

robertsona
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