In A Silent Way
Rolling Stone, November 15 1969
by Lester Bangs
This is the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music. It is not rock and roll, but it's nothing stereotyped as jazz either. All at once, it owes almost as much to the techniques developed by rock improvisors in the last four years as to Davis' jazz background. It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.
Miles has always gone his own way, a musician of strength and dignity who has never made the compromise (so poisonous to jazz now) with "pop" fads. It is a testimony to his authenticity that he has never worried about setting styles either, but continued his deeply felt experiment for two decades now. Albums like Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain simply do not get old, and contain some of the most moving experiences that any music has to offer. In his new album, the best he has made in some time, he turns to "space music" and a reverent, timeless realm of pure song, the kind of music which comes along ever so often and stops us momentarily, making us think that this perhaps is the core around which all of our wayward musical highways have revolved, the primal yet futuristic and totally uncontrived sound which gives the deepest, most lasting sustenance to our souls, the living contemporary definition of great art.
The songs are long jams with a minimum of preplanned structure. That they are so cohesive and sustained is a testament to the experience and sensitivity of the musicians involved. Miles' lines are like shots of distilled passion, the kind of evocative, liberating riffs that decades of strivers build their styles on. Aside from Charles Mingus, there is no other musician alive today who communicates such a yearning, controlled intensity, the transformation of life's inchoate passions and tensions into aural adventures that find a permanent place in your consciousness and influence your basic definitions of music. And his sidemen also rise to the occasion, most of them playing better than I have ever heard them before. Certainly Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), and Joe Zawinul (organ) have never seemed so transported. The miracle of jazz is that a great leader can bring merely competent musicians to incredible heights of inspiration—Mingus has always been famous for this, and Miles has increasingly proven himself a master of this incredibly delicate art.
The first side is taken up by a long jam called "Shhh/Peaceful." Tony Williams' cymbal-and-brush work and the subtle arabesques of Zawinul's organ set a space trip, a mood of suspended time and infinite interior vistas. But when Miles enters, the humanity and tenderness of his trumpet's soft cries are enough to bring you tears. I've heard that when he was making this album, Miles had been listening to Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, but the feeling here is closer to something like "2000 Light Years From Home" by the Stones. It is space music, but with an overwhelmingly human component that makes it much more moving and enduring than most of its rock counterparts.
Side two opens and closes with the best song on the album, a timeless trumpet prayer called "In a Silent Way." There has always been something eternal and pure in Miles' music, and this piece captures that quality as well as anything he's ever recorded. If, as I believe, Miles is an artist for the ages, then this piece will be among those that stand through those vast tracks of time to remind future generations of the oneness of human experience.
Between the two takes of "Silent Way" lies "It's About That Time," a terse, restrained space jam somewhat reminiscent of the one on the first side but a bit sharper, allowing more of Miles' fierce blues ethos to burn through. This is the one that might be connected to Miles' interest in Hendrix and Sly.
They say that jazz has become menopausal, and there is much truth in the statement. Rock too seems to have suffered under a numbing plethora of standardized Sounds. But I believe there is a new music in the air, a total art which knows no boundaries or categories, a new school run by geniuses indifferent to fashion. And I also believe that the ineluctable power and honesty of their music shall prevail. Miles Davis is one of those geniuses.
But just to show he could get it wrong as well as right: