Of all the recording sessions completed by Miles Davis with his various bands, the sessions surrounding In a Silent Way Sessions in 1968 and 1969 are easily the most mysterious and enigmatic. For starters, they signified the completion of his transformation from acoustic to electric sound, and secondly, they marked the complete dissolution of the "second" quintet of Davis, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter that had begun on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The addition of Chick Corea as a second keyboard player and the replacement of Ron Carter with Dave Holland had changed the sound of the band's dynamic, textural, and rhythmic palettes. The final break with Davis' own previous musical sound happened when he added guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul (for a temporary three-keyboard sound).
The music on the In a Silent Way Sessions comes packaged three ways, all of it chronologically ordered: there is the material used to finish Filles de Kilimanjaro ("Mademoiselle Maby" and "Freon Brun"); material that has been, up until now, unissued in any form; session outtakes that appeared, in edited form, on Circle in the Round, Water Babies, and Directions; unissued and rejected takes; and finally, the music recorded for In a Silent Way itself as it was rehearsed, played, and finally, heavily edited into the released album, which also appears here.
This was an ambitious undertaking, even if it only covered six months in the recording life of Davis (September 1968 through February 1969), whose musical inspirations and directions were crisscrossing as they were changing direction. With the exception of one tune, Davis or Zawinul composed everything here. Zawinul, though a jazz veteran, was discovering new ways to write -- particularly since the advent of the electric piano -- and proved to be a profound influence on his employer. The other heavy influence on Davis during this volatile, fertile period was Tony Williams, who was soaking up the pop music of the day, from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album (via a girlfriend's suggestion) to the in-his-prime James Brown, to Jimi Hendrix.
On disc one the set begins with the missing tracks from the quintet box set: "Mademoiselle Mabry" and "Frelon Brun." Hearing them in this context, as the first complete expressions of Davis' new sound, is revelatory. For the first time the three-chord vamp in "Mademoiselle Mabry" comes across as the fitting tribute to Hendrix it should have been, echoing the turnaround tags in "The Wind Cries Mary." These tracks mark the entrance of Dave Holland into the band and the first marked absence of Hancock. The contrast in styles, from Hancock's chunky, groove-laden chords and single-note runs and Corea's deep, cerebral spaciousness, is remarkable; it's a wonder they were issued on the same record at all. The simple, slow jam riff the former tune evokes was, in some way, the cornerstone on which the material for these sessions would be built, while the latter provided the space and pace for its establishment.
The elegantly spaced-out "Two Faced" and "Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process" were recorded as a sextet with Hancock. Both tunes are a showcase for the interplay between both keyboardists and Holland, whose near-mystical lyricism was exactly what Davis was looking for in a bass player -- one who could change the role of the instrument in an ensemble setting. The loose-jam feeling on these tunes could be heard by some as meandering, but it would be shortsighted to assume this for the entire picture. The various extrapolations on blues-feel and meter -- moving them into modal settings and then deconstructing these for a streamlined, open music that allowed for both improvisation and direct musical interplay between various members -- were integral, and created in Davis' music a space that changed jazz forever.
Disc one ends with the full version of "Splash" that appeared on Circle in the Round. Here, all of its four interludes are included after the unedited version of the tune. All of the interludes were recorded as scripted fragments with no improvisation and featured Hancock playing electric harpsichord and Corea on organ. Lastly we get "Splashdown," the first Davis recording that features Zawinul and the three-keyboard lineup. Here, too, the track was unissued and one has to wonder why because the dialogue between the three principals, and Holland and Williams, is remarkable -- Davis is all but absent, but it hardly matters as Shorter covers his territory well. With two electric pianos and an organ, the tune is so psychedelic and fat; full of a kind of inherent funkiness brought by the rhythm section, and Shorter underscores the jazz element in his solo by taking two cues from Coltrane and turning them into modal paragraphs. Both interludes that follow the tune were also rejected.
Disc two is where the In a Silent Way project begins in earnest. The next set is from the album issued in 1981 as Directions. The three tracks that comprise it reveal just how far Davis was willing to take the massive keyboard section. With slow, drifting, methodical improvisation concerned more with the development of sound and texture than riffs and intervals, the Davis group drifts through "Ascent," with Zawinul keeping the color hushed and silvery as Hancock improvises and Corea plays a series of modulated, though very subtle, changes. The most noticeable change is on the driving "Directions," both pieces one and two. Williams has been replaced, for this session at least, with Jack DeJohnette, and the driving, slippery force of DeJohnette's drumming with Shorter's precisely punctuated soprano solo is overwhelming in its glorious intensity. These are both unedited takes, recorded as they happened without studio trickery from Teo Macero. The second take is slower, more defined; the intimate speech that developed between Shorter and Zawinul here offers a first glimpse of the sound that would be the genesis of Weather Report a little over a year later. For the time being, largely due to the intuitive improvisation of DeJohnette's drumming, the sound of "Directions" was a rock sound with wild intervalic fanfare and slippery rhythms shifting under the explosive interplay between soloists and ensemble.
From the middle to the end of disc two, the In a Silent Way project begins to take shape. The first version of "Shhh/Peaceful" rings with the presence of John McLaughlin's guitar. The first version is a bit faster from the jump than the one released later -- and heavily edited. There is no chord structure to the tune; there's just a small groove figure with solo vamps appearing all over it. The bassline is doubled by Corea's electric piano; Hancock's silky piano accompaniment fills in the shapes. The hi-hat and McLaughlin's guitar shimmer colors and nuances as Davis enters with the only solo he could play to such beautiful accompaniment. There is an accented chordal passageway from the middle to the end where Zawinul enters, creating a series of overtones with his organ that lend a spectral, eerie presence to the proceedings. It dissolves eventually, only to give way to the intro to Zawinul's gorgeous "In a Silent Way/It's About That Time." The rehearsal version has a ton of chords compared to the way it was written; they were added as coloration devices to involve the instrumentalists in a deeper way. First, there is the reductionism of McLaughlin playing the melody in just one chord, and then Davis and Shorter enter to play over the Rhodes and doubled bassline.
When the early recorded versions are set in place, and McLaughlin opens the tune, you can feel how much the tune has developed from the rehearsal tape. The pace is tortoise-like; everything is gone from the mix, and there's just that guitar with Zawinul eventually adding his organ and Hancock slinking his piano into the intervals. When the band does enter, it's via Shorter's sweet, singing soprano rather than Davis' trumpet. It's reduced to essence as a melodic frame with no foundation to hook onto, as transitory and elegant as it is beautiful.
The suspended vamp that begins "It's About That Time" is a floating one; it never anchors itself to either E-or F-sharp. Hancock offers the chords and Corea and Zawinul join him, playing shifting, ghostly fills before McLaughlin jumps in and doubles the keyboards sleepily with a bluesy graciousness. The piece was recorded in sections, so everything we hear has an illusory quality to it, because Macero edited it all into one tune. Solos and density structures mark the individual takes; Hancock and McLaughlin deconstruct tonalities in favor of sound, creating overtonal ambiences.
The rest of the set offers finished, wonderfully remastered versions of both "In a Silent Way/It's About That Time" and "Shhh/Peaceful": those that appeared on the original LP. Bob Belden's revealing, insightful, and authoritative liner notes tell the fascinating story of how the recorded tracks were edited into final versions, so we won't go into it here. But the two other tracks recorded with the same band minus Tony Williams -- replaced by Joe Chambers, of all people -- are both unissued: "The Ghetto Walk" and "Early Minor." Both are deeply Hendrix-influenced, using his choice of keys and a series of sevenths around E-flat, B-flat, and A-flat, and finally shifting themselves, in transmuted form, to the big daddy of all rock keys, E. Both of these tracks, filled with space, blues, rock, and killer piano and organ fills, are rhythmically carried by Holland and danced through the pocket by Chambers, who, while not as muscular as either Williams or DeJohnette, was more nuanced as a blues player, which is what these two awesome numbers called for, as they turned out to be -- especially "Ghetto Walk" -- the precursors to the material that would be recorded for Jack Johnson a year later.
There is nothing extra in this set in terms of fluff, viscera, or detritus. All of the material included from these sessions offers perhaps the most fascinating look to date into the musical mind of Miles Davis, who was undergoing a revolution of his own -- he looked to the younger players for inspiration and guidance in how to handle the new forms; the liner notes bear this atypical personification out. Each track is an audible step in that development, and a step toward the goal of what would be the first Miles Davis "groove" album -- not in the Blue Note sense of the vernacular -- one of atmosphere and ambience and texture and drift -- not of melodies and changes. The package is handsome and well-illustrated to be sure, but the music alone is worth the package price. In many ways -- far more so than the Bitches Brew sessions -- this is the long-sought key that unlocks the door to the room that has the answers as to why and how Davis made such a complete break with his own music on In a Silent Way -- a music which he never returned to -- at least on record. It's the first box set in a long time that's been worth playing from beginning to end.