In A Silent Way is a remix of itself

My friend Leo told me that he always faces a conflict when shopping for jazz records. He wants to show love for working musicians by buying their newer recordings, but then, he could always just pick up another Miles Davis album and know it’s going to be ridiculously good.

Probably my favorite Miles album, out of many great ones, is In a Silent Way. It’s from early in his jazz-funk period, when his music consisted more of open-ended grooves than traditional songs. Each side of In A Silent Way is a single long track, pieced together by Miles and producer Teo Macero from excerpts of long improvisations. Earlier Miles albums had used tape editing to create seamless suites and to composite different takes of the same tune together, but In A Silent Way was the first to use the mixing desk as a fundamental compositional tool. Miles and Teo remixed the improvs into something unambiguously new.

The live performances were recorded in a single day in February of 1969 by a top-flight band, a veritable Who’s Who of jazz fusion. Wayne Shorter played soprano sax, in a style closer to Coltrane than Kenny G. The teenaged John McLaughlin played electric guitar — he had met Miles for the first time the night before. The rhythm section was another pair of teenagers, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Williams. Both of these guys were already dazzling virtuosos, but Miles had them play extremely simple, repetitive, uninteresting parts. Had this album been made twenty years later, my guess is that he probably would have used sampled bass loops and a drum machine. In another particularly futuristic choice, Miles included three keyboard players: Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, both on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ.

The suites on each side of In A Silent Way contain three sections. The first and last sections are identical copies of the same stretches of tape. This decision was prompted by the original edit being too short for a full album. The duplication was a lazy solution, but sometimes the lazy solution is the right one. In this case, the move transformed In A Silent Way from a pleasant jazz fusion album into a milestone of electronic music production.

Repetition of musical material is nothing new. Mozart used the “A, B, A again” structure for dozens of his compositions. What’s new about In A Silent Way is that the A sections are not just repeat performances of the same music, but perfectly identical copies. Exact duplication of audio has become a common music production technique in the computer era, but there was nothing ordinary about it in 1969. Also, when contemporary producers copy and paste stuff, they usually do single phrases or sections. It’s rare to duplicate such long passages.

In 2001 Columbia released the unedited recordings from the Silent Way sessions. We got to hear firsthand what had gone into the album and what got cut. As it turns out, “Shhh/Peaceful” was originally a conventional sixties jazz tune by Joe Zawinul, a complex melody played in unison on the horns, followed by a solo section. The final edit cuts the melody entirely, jumping from a short ambient intro right into the first beat of the solos. Poor Joe Zawinul was probably pretty upset at having his entire composition wind up on the cutting room floor. In interviews he also griped that Miles reworked the solo sections, replacing their chord progression with a simple, open-ended D pedal. Listening now, I side with Miles. The frenetic density of Zawinul’s writing hasn’t aged well. To my ears it sounds anxious and underdeveloped. Miles made the tune more spacious, groove-oriented and repetitive, more like modern dance music than sixties jazz. Zawinul’s original composition was severely dated, but the groove it inspired is timeless.

My single favorite trumpet-playing moment of Miles’ career occurs at around 4:18 into “Shhh/Peaceful.” He’s playing a phrase that steps up and down the chromatic scale. You expect the phrase to land on the tonic D, but instead Miles ends it on E flat, the most dissonant possible note in the key. You think it might have been accidental, but then Miles deliberately repeats the E flat and holds it out. What begins as hair-raising dissonance ends up convincing you of its exotic beauty.

The groove segment of side two, “It’s About That Time”, is hardly even a tune at all. It’s comprised of two riffs, a dreamy six-bar chord figure and a funky four-bar bassline. It sounds less like a jazz composition and more like the kind of thing you’d put together with a loop sequencer like Reason or Ableton Live. This is the kind of forward thinking that keeps electric Miles albums sounding so much fresher than anything by his peers.

Miles’ interest in electronic music has made him a beloved figure among younger musicians who aren’t much interested in bebop. Bill Laswell did a pretty cool remix album of In A Silent Way and the electric funk-oriented albums that followed called Panthalassa. There are also some classic hip-hop tracks that sample Miles, like the trumpet scream in OutKast’s song “Ain’t No Thang.”

Jazz would be a livelier art form if other musicians followed Miles’ lead and explored the recording studio more as an instrument unto itself. Electronica producers tend to love jazz; I wish the love was more mutual.

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