Listen to this track by boundary-pushing jazz trumpeter and genre-defying sonic visionary Miles Davis. It’s “Shhh/Peaceful”, the first track and indeed whole of side-A on his 1969 landmark release In A Silent Way.
The album gathered some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day into one space, with the music recorded during a single session on February 18, 1969, after almost a year on Davis’ part of working up ideas, and experimenting with new textures and instrumentation. Joining jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea, were European jazz players including bassist Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul on organ, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin.
Besides Davis’ creative vision supported by producer and engineer Teo Macero, perhaps it was this cross-cultural exchange that helped to move this project into another dimension. Likely too it was the addition of electric instruments that made this record the harbinger of Davis’ foray into what would become known as jazz fusion, wherein he would employ electric wattage to his instrumental excursions that paid no mind to traditional melodic frameworks, making critics wonder if Miles Davis was even interested in jazz any longer.
But, when it came to the critics, this piece of music, and In A Silent Way in general, much of it stemmed from a significant paradigm shift when it came to how jazz was understood, and that which was very common in the recording of rock music at the time; studio trickery undertaken after the musicians went home.
Traditionally speaking, jazz has been about spontaneity as gathered around the familiar in the moment. That’s why there are so many recordings of pop standards in jazz history, not to mention variations on the blues, with each version featuring the unique interpretations of the songs from individual players’ points of view in the moment they are played. Whatever was played on the floor was what went on the platter, with the selection of the right take being a factor too, of course. These dynamics in jazz were in place since the blues was first notated, and jazz itself was born. Miles Davis himself was very much a part of this tradition of melodic frameworks using blues scales and pop standards, first as a young be-bop player in the forties, and later as a proponent and innovator of cool jazz in the fifties.
But, this is not how “Shhh/Peaceful” was created, nor did In A Silent Way as a whole follow this traditional template. Instead, it ushered in a new paradigm for making jazz records where the final product was not simply about great musicians laying down their parts according to a given framework. In this case, the tracks as we listeners know them today were built up after the recordings of the parts were made, using precise and highly technical editing techniques that were painstakingly undertaken by Teo Macero. These edits were often made at the expense of the original melodies that Davis (and Joe Zawinul on the flipside) had written. So much for spontaneity gathered around the familiar, then! The parts were re-ordered, pared down, cut, and pasted into new sequences and new lines according to how they contributed to the tension of the music being made as a whole, and done so deliberately at the production stage.
That’s the genius of this track, and of the album in general. With this new stage in the process of crafting an album from the raw materials provided by the hours of recorded performances, Davis and Macero took down the baby gate, freeing the music of boundaries. Yet, even though it is boundless and spatially vast, it is characterized by restraint, which in turn makes that sense of space you can hear in this piece even more compelling. It seems both vast and confined all at once, with space and (if you will) silence becoming integral elements to its form. It was not just a recording date captured for posterity. It was a seamless and organic creation that went beyond the initial raw recordings.
In this way, I think the reason that many jazz critics had so much trouble with this record at the time was not simply because it sounded more like a rock record than they were comfortable with. I think it was because this was a fundamentally different beast at the molecular level than they knew what to do with. One couldn’t judge it strictly by the playing, as one normally would in a jazz review. One had to judge it by so many other elements beyond the initial performances that had never really been established in jazz criticism before. Rock critics had less of a problem with it because the use of studio technology had played such an important part in many high-profile recordings in the rock world by 1969. After Dylan went electric and with the release of Sgt. Pepper, rock critics expected to be surprised, and often even confounded. With jazz, and jazz criticism, this was a new world where the vocabulary to make sense of what was being heard had to be invented from the ground up. This is another advantage that rock critics had; they’d been making up the rules for themselves all the while mostly because they had to, with rock music as an art form to be judged with a critical eye being a historically new thing, and therefore with fewer rules pushed onto it. Saying that, In A Silent Way isn’t really a rock record, either!
So, the bone of contention for many jazz critics and audiences was not about electric guitars primarily, even though that language was certainly used at the time. I think what it was really about was this; how does one define what a recording and what a performance actually are to each other, and how does one interrelate one to another as a critic? This is a harder task to achieve than deciding whether or not a rock beat or a Marshall stack has any place in jazz. It’s an easier question to answer today, when this approach to composition, arrangements, recording, and production are more fluid, in part thanks to this record and the evolving technology that enabled it. But by the late sixties, it was a brand new set of considerations. It would certainly pave the way for Miles to embark on a new project by the summer of 1969 that would end in the release of Bitches’ Brew, yet another landmark album that would challenge all assumptions about what jazz could be. That’s a whole other story!
In the meantime, the significance of Davis’ and Macero’s work on In A Silent Way is incalculable to the art of recorded music overall. Jazz has been enhanced by it. But, so has progressive rock, post-rock, drone-rock, ambient, downtempo, and instrumental hip-hop, among many other strains of contemporary music. When Miles Davis removed the barriers for jazz recordings and sheer vision with this recording, it was like the raising of a flood gate with the ensuing rush of new ideas and possibilities sweeping up the imaginations of many who make music even today, outside of jazz and within it.
In 2001, the complete sessions for In A Silent Way were released, which includes much of the original source material from which the completed album was fashioned. Have read of this review from our cooler-than-thou friends at Pitchfork. In it, you will learn about the way that Miles himself was challenged by upcoming musical trends, and inspired by new players on the jazz scene, thereby pushing him to reassess his own approach.
And this is also your chance to read Bruce Jenkins’ piece right here about this very same record, found on vinylconnection.com!