Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way

Miles Davis: In A Silent Way

This album has languished in our collection for some time. It was bought with the best of intentions, to explore Miles’ own explorations of electric music, particularly keyboards. As jazz critic Andrew Bartlett put it, “Legendary as a kind of line in the sand challenging jazz fans during the ascendance of electric, psychedelic rock, In A Silent Way hinted at the repetitive polyrhythms Davis would employ throughout the early 1970s.”

Unfortunately for me, it just didn’t catch my ear when I first heard it. Always a fan of Miles’ earlier work, I would occasionally haul it out to try again, only to put it away after a cursory listen.

Recently, though, I pulled it out again and popped it in the kitchen boombox. And this time, it took. Probably as much as anything because I’d been exposed to a similar sounding Miles tune, Spanish Key, used in the soundtrack of the movie Collateral [an excellent film, by the way, whatever you think of the increasingly weird Mr. Cruise].

I listened to the two-track, 1969 release In A Silent Way over and over, each time anticipating the arrival Miles’ long, clear trumpet solos over the layered textures of multiple electric keyboards and dreamlike electric guitar, bass and drums. At that moment, the music would come alive, yet another birth of the cool for Mr. Davis.

But ultimately and interestingly, the album worked best when I had it on in the background and was listening passively. Usually, it’s while actively listening to an album that I find the music most interesting. When I listened actively to this album, though, I quickly became frustrated. Especially when I looked at the liner notes and reminded myself of the personnel. Besides Miles, there are seven other musicians on this disk, including jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on keyboards, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and Dave Holland on bass. But when Miles isn’t soloing, no one else emerges to pick up the conversation. They all just swirl around each other in this hypnotic mishmash of sound, what Bartlett describes as “part ambient color exploration, part rock-inflected energy and vibe.”

And even Miles’ solos, as lovely as they are, err on the side of repetitive and somewhat expected. By way of comparison, I listened to one of my favorite Miles Davis tracks this evening, his 1964 recording of the standard My Funny Valentine. In it, he plays exactly 12 notes of the original melody faithfully before taking off in all kinds of amazing improvisational directions. Throughout the 15-minute track, everyone is improvising non-stop, having a true jazz conversation. And only occasionally will someone play maybe a bar or two of the original melody, as if to say, “This is what we’re playing, remember? Now try and keep up.”

All that said, In A Silent Way will stay in my current jazz rotation a while longer—and return more often. But I think it will be when I want a cool groove in the background. And that’s not a bad way to enjoy it, I think.

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3 Responses to “Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way”

  1. Helmut Says:

    Purchased this album when it was issued. One of my favorites. Am also a great fan ot the early Miles and his stellar bands. A great write up!

  2. Terry B Says:

    Thanks, Helmut. As I said, I have come to like it, but I still prefer the complexities of his earlier straightahead jazz.

  3. To grill or not to grill: Rosemary Pork Chops — Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way. Ever the jazz innovator, Miles took on electric psychedelic rock with electric jazz, at What’s on the kitchen boombox? […]

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