It’s Jazz Jim but not as we know it. Or at least that’s what Spock might have said to Kirk upon hearing In a Silent Way, an album which seemed to divide the Jazz community like no other when it was released. The year was 1969, a time when rock music had become the dominating vehicle of expression for not only the youth of America, but across the entire world, much of it through the magic of electricity. Even Dylan had seen the light just a few short years earlier, plugging in and dropping out of the traditional folk scene altogether. So it was only natural that eventually something similar would happen in the sphere of Jazz, not so much a question of if, but when.
By 1968 Miles Davis was in his forties, an artist who had spent the past twenty years pushing nearly every boundary that there was to be pushed. And with all these new sounds coming out of the counter-culture, it’s not surprising he must have wanted to take his music in a whole new direction. Though I’m sure if you had of asked Miles what he really thought of rock, might have been akin to asking Bach what he thought about primitive composition from our preliterate ancestors. For such was the disparate distinction between all he had done before, and all that he was about to do. But being the weird professor of chemistry that he was, every once in a while discovering new elements to add to the periodic table, he obviously couldn’t help but let his curiosity get the better of him, and let his mind go free. Yet no genius ever truly stands alone. He needs assistants to help with all those endless experiments which take place in the laboratory.
Initial sessions were held in September 1968, with Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Tony Williams (drums). However none of these proved fruitful. Further sessions took place in November, with the same line up, this time with Herbie Hancock. Although these too were rejected. Later that month Joe Zawinul was brought in, the group recording several lengthy pieces (all of which are thankfully preserved on the Complete In a Silent Way Sessions box set), but were also left on the shelf. It wasn’t until February the following year, when a young and relatively unknown English guitarist by the name of John McLaughlin flew in that the last missing piece of the puzzle was finally established.
Recorded in just one morning/afternoon session, what is surprising is how much material from all previous gatherings was preserved, and yet apparently, only a total of 27 minutes was actually put to tape on this day, out of the purportedly two hours of jamming that took place. Which can mean one of two things; either there was needless noodling going on, or someone in the control booth didn’t know when to press the record button.
“Shhh/Peaceful” kicks the album off with the band in full subliminal flight. Zawinul and Corea fidget ethereally on their respective instruments, while McLaughlin glides like a swan in experimental fashion, diving through the water here and there, and coming up for air only when necessary. It’s only through headphones that one can notice the edits, as well as the same composition repeated twice. But such is the drone-like and meditative quality of the playing that one hardly even notices the subtle differences in the mixing. One gets the feeling that the thing could go on forever, and you wouldn’t even mind if it did, because the whole journey is so relaxing and subconscious, that it almost instantly transports your mind into a state of unconscious nebulosity.
“In a Silent Way” is all shimmering keyboards, and introspective guitar. Miles adds some contemplative horn throughout, only adding to the effect of floating through heaven, or hovering amongst the clouds. “It’s About That Time” is the last extended number, where Tony Williams adds some clock-work time-keeping (perhaps hence the name), while the rest of the troupe mess about in experimental Nirvana. In other words, monks eat your hearts out.
Listening to this LP is like resting one’s head on a pillow and drifting off to some far off place you’ve never been to but are familiar with all the same. That the entire album was improvised is remarkable in itself, and proves that spontaneity can still be the key to achieving true creativity, through something original, and not heard before. Controversial at the time, but God knows why. I guess you can call it the shock of the new. Like the discovery of the human genome, or the first exoplanet. For this is music that should be transmitted into outer space, in the hope that someday, when our race is all but extinguished, that the sounds of In a Silent Way shall be spread out across the universe, for any other sentient species to enjoy, long after we ourselves are gone.