Feb 18, 2019
Fifty years ago today – February 18, 1969 - Miles Davis and a group of musicians entered Columbia Studio B in New York City for a three hour session that eventually became his first true “electric album”, In A Silent Way. It’s fair to say that the album remains one of the most startling and influential jazz albums of all time, one of the first times that electric instruments met truly adventurous jazz musicians, and the resulting music was manipulated by the nascent studio technology of the day.
Who better to take us through the story of In A Silent Way than the renowned author and educator Ashley Kahn? The author of definitive books on Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and a Grammy winning writer of liner notes, Kahn is a professor of music history and criticism at the Tisch School at NYU. I’ve been lucky to have him on the show before, and he once again gives a fascinating perspective to Davis’ work.
In A Silent Way came less than six months after the fracturing and then dissolution of Miles’ Second Great Quintet. Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams had begun working more diligently on their own electric projects (Mwandashi and Lifetime, respectively) and Ron Carter sought session work to make up for the lack of revenue due to the reduction in Davis’ touring schedule. Hancock and Carter left the quintet during the sessions that became Filles de Kilimanjaro, and Chick Corea and Dave Holland replaced them. By the end of 1968, Davis’ group had morphed and grown, with Davis, Wayne Shorter (sax), Joe Zawinul (organ, electric piano), Corea and a returning Hancock (electric piano) joined by Holland (bass) and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
Tony Williams returned to replace DeJohnette for In A Silent Way, and in a crucial addition, the 27 year old guitar whiz John McLaughlin came on board as well. The recording that day, as Mr. Kahn points out, was more about feel and atmosphere than following specific harmonics. Once recorded, it was turned over to Davis’ producer Teo Macero, who cut and pasted the recording tape, doubling up and looping portions to accentuate the ambience and groove of the session. The result was four compositions that were re-arranged into side-long jams on the vinyl record – “Shhh” and “Peaceful” written by Davis, and “In A Silent Way” and “It’s About That Time” based on a composition by Zawinul, although the latter is credited solely to Davis. The band (with Joe Chambers replacing Williams) returned two days later, but those recordings would be shelved and did not see the light of day until Mosaic Records’ The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (September 1968-February 1969) appeared, an indispensable three CD set.
Podcast 664 is my conversation with Ashley Kahn, with musical selections including “Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet)” from Filles de Kilimanjaro; “Shhh” from the first part of three segmented jam “Shhh/Peaceful/Shhh” on Side One of In A Silent Way; and an early take of “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” that made its way to Side Two’s “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time/In A Silent Way.”
If you enjoyed hearing Mr. Kahn, you'll be pleased to know he will back for an August podcast celebrating the 50th anniversary of the recording of Davis' electric magnum opus, Bitches Brew.