Learning the ins and outs of Miles Davis’ extensive discography has been a very long and, it should be noted, still ongoing process, particularly since his career has spanned several phases of modern jazz: bop, cool, modal music, and fusion, the latter of which In a Silent Way is a part. The single most important figure in the development of modern jazz was Charlie Parker, a saxophonist who spearheaded the bop (also known as bebop) movement in New York City in the wake of World War II. Bop actually developed during WW2, but no records of any kind were produced from 1942-1944 due to a Musicians’ Union ban on commercial recordings. When that ban was lifted, bop emerged fully formed, and it took the jazz world by storm. Miles Davis was a well-off kid from Illinois who moved to New York City after high school to study music at Juilliard in 1944. He quickly dropped out after locating his idol, Charlie Parker, and he joined the famous Charlie Parker Quintet.
The rest, as they say, is history, as Davis became one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, releasing an astonishing 67 studio albums (with an additional 3 soundtrack albums), 53 live albums and, so far, a rather dubious 61 compilation albums. I don’t have anything against compilation albums — there’s no denying that they play an important role in introducing young ears to unfamiliar music, as well as provide a nice refresher for the fans of old. But 61 compilation albums? Seriously? 47 of them have been released after his death in 1991, and I have a feeling he wouldn’t have approved of this poorly disguised greed. There is one, however, that I would like to mention. 1957’s Birth of the Cool is one of the most important compilation albums in jazz, chronicling the first recordings of what has come to be known as cool jazz from three different sessions in January and April 1949 and March 1950.
Cool jazz was a very important development, and it arose when Davis grew unsatisfied with the direction Parker was taking bebop, which was to increase the tempo. Davis sought to approach his improvisation differently, eventually working with the great arranger Gil Evans to give his solo work a more composed feel. Davis’ follow-up to his 1959 masterwork Kind of Blue, 1960’s Sketches of Spain, makes awesome use of Evans’ arrangements. It narrowly missed making this list, and is an honorable mention. Fast forward to 1969, and Davis was doing something altogether different yet again. It’s hard to really describe In a Silent Way, other than to say there are lots of keyboards, electric guitar, and, most importantly, heavy studio editing of the performances in an avant-garde fashion. (Even though all of the performances were recorded on the same day.)
Davis’ 1970 follow-up Bitches Brew gets a lot of the credit for the fusion movement and is frequently listed among the greatest albums of all time, but I feel like In a Silent Way always gets overlooked. It’s just a stunner of an album. Not to mention it came first and is a hell of a lot shorter and easier to take in. I don’t think I have ever really thought about this until now, but In a Silent Way is one of those albums that just defies description. There aren’t any songs or pieces, really. It just drones on for 38 minutes until it’s over. And yet it’s absolutely fascinating. It has an openness about it that I just love. It’s about the subtle things like mood, tone and texture. If you have always been on the fence about fusion, give this one a shot.