The Roots of Prog: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

My introduction to jazz was through Weather Report in the late ‘70s, and I couldn’t have made a more fortunate choice. Led by Josef Zawinul on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, my love for that group’s music opened the door for me to the mother lode of jazz: Miles Davis.

Miles’ 1969 album, In a Silent Way, is a cornerstone of progressive music. Consider this – it contains just three songs: “Shhh/Peaceful” (18:16), “In a Silent Way” (4:11), and “It’s About That Time” (11:27). These songs don’t follow any typical structure; they are mostly jams, albeit within a strictly controlled atmosphere. Hearing the album gives the listener a sense of time being suspended, while gifted musicians at the top of their game improvise with each other. Also, as with many prog classics, the studio was an integral part of the finished result.

In 1969, Miles’ group was in transition. Pianist Herbie Hancock was itching to go solo, drummer Tony Williams was starting up his fusion band Lifetime, and bassist Ron Carter was tired of touring. Miles recruited British bassist Dave Holland for the sessions, guitarist John McLaughlin, and electric pianist Chick Corea. At the last minute, he invited keyboardist Josef Zawinul to join them. So the sessions began with a unique lineup never before seen in jazz: three keyboards (Hancock, Corea, and Zawinul), bass (Holland), electric guitar (McLaughlin), soprano sax (Shorter), drums (Williams), and trumpet (Davis). Teo Macero, Miles’ long-time producer, was again at the controls.

Apparently there was very little actual composition written out beforehand. However, that doesn’t mean the songs are aimless noodling. Tony Williams is a master of restraint, playing a steady pulse on his cymbals almost the entire album. Here is how Ian Carr, in his biography of Miles Davis, describes the music:

There is great delicacy and finesse in the solos, great subtlety in the keyboards (everybody is listening to everyone else), and the music is pervaded by Miles Davis’ unique atmosphere of buoyant though melancholy reflection. Perhaps paradoxically, the total impression is powerful and seductive because the steady time with its occasional pauses (as if the music were actually breathing) creates the non-western climate of timelessness – and in a sense, it is music which should be inhabited rather than merely listened to.

Some of Miles’ greatest solos are in these sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter’s. By this time, they had played together so long they seemed to be one mind with their improvised interplay. When the sessions were over, they had about two hours of material. Teo Macero had learned to just let the tapes roll as soon as Miles began, and not stop until everyone quit.

Macero used editing to cut and paste together the final album, and he deserves most of the credit for making it such a satisfying listen. In “Shhh/Peaceful”, he includes a trumpet solo at 1:35 that states the theme, then he lets everyone trade solos for the next twelve minutes. At 13:31, he brings back the same solo to close out the piece.

“In A Silent Way”, which opens side two, begins with John McLaughlin alone on guitar. Miles famously suggested to McLaughlin that he “Play it like you don’t know how to play guitar”, and the result is a beautiful and simple tune that is charming yet challenging to listen to. It then segues immediately into “It’s About That Time”. Again, Tony Williams sets up a steady pulse over which the others can vamp and solo. Holland plays a repeated riff on bass that slowly builds tension while McLaughlin, Shorter, Corea, and Davis take turns soloing. The keyboards and guitar join Holland playing the bass riff until finally, at 9:00, Tony cuts loose and flails away on the drums while Miles solos. Then the exact same take of “In A Silent Way” that began the side brings the listener back to earth. No one had used tape editing in such a radical fashion before, but Macero makes it work.

It would be hard to overstate the influence In A Silent Way has had on music. Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell – all display hints of this music. Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden is heavily indebted to it, as well as a lot of Steven Wilson’s latest work (Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion). Practically anything that has “space” in it can trace its roots to this album.

Once again, Miles proved himself to be a visionary artist, building the bridge between traditional jazz and the newborn genre that would soon be known as progressive rock.

Listen to a stream of Side Two:

5 thoughts on “The Roots of Prog: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

  1. carleolson

    Great post, thank you! I had the privilege of seeing Wayne Shorter in concert about five years here in Eugene, Oregon. He was touring with an amazing bunch of musicians (Brian Blade on drums; John Patituci on bass, etc.), and it was a transcendent two hours of music. The interplay was almost telepathic. Shorter is now mid-80s and is, like Sonny Rollins, performing at an amazing level. My favorite Miles Davis albums are with his quintet of Shorter, Hancock, Carter, and Williams from the mid-1960s. As you note, “In a Silent Way” marked a moment of key transition; it is a wonderful album. I actually prefer it over “Bitches Brew”.

    Like

  2. Carl,
    Thanks so much for the kind words. I saw Weather Report in 1986, and they were a lot of fun. I saw Wayne and Herbie when they toured in support of their Verve album, and it was fantastic. I’m with you as far as my favorite Miles group. “In a Silent Way” was the first Miles album I bought though, so it has a special place in my heart. When I finally got around to hearing “Bitches Brew”, I was disappointed!

    Like

  3. Great review. I’m a fan of “Laughing stock” and “Spirit of eden”
    When i heard “In a silent way”, yesterday, for the first time, i directly thought of those two albums, as obvious influence, like you suggest in your article.

    Today, i’m listening to “Sketches of spain”, and I feel the same junction with “Spirit of eden”. Amazing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you came across my review, Siril. As you probably realized, I’m a huge admirer of Talk Talk’s later work. “Sketches of Spain” is another essential Miles album – you’ve hit on the best ones. Check out Weather Report’s song, Badia, from their “Tale Spinnin'” album. I think you will like it.

      Like

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s