Saturday, July 18, 2009

Voodoo Ritual: In A Silent Way

While I was a young man in college, I had a chip on my shoulder about jazz. You see, I was an outspoken proponent of the artistic merit of rock music. I worked in the rock and roll department of the Indiana University School Of Music, a prestigious music school to be sure. But we rockers in the staff were sneered at, belittled by the cultured classical divisions, as well as the jazz department, who felt that out music was often a blight on the school, a vulgar blight that was better left unmentioned among the cultured ponderings of so many jazz historians.

Seems silly, coming from guys whose music developed in brothels and bars, don't you think?

Were I feeling more academic, I'd consider spouting off about the heirarchy of popular music, how jazz was derided by the upper class in the early part of the century, only to be replaced at the bottom of the ladder by rock and roll in the latter half of the 1900s. However, I'm not in that sort of mood...

You see, partially because of my youthful ignorance, and then magnified by my resentment of the superior attitudes of academic jazz fans, I've never been a big fan of jazz in practice. In principle, I have no problem with the genre, but in practice, I've never been a big fan of it. I've studied it under some wonderful luminaries, but never fully appreciated it, at least, not to the extent that most jazz fans seem to. I have my problems with the attitudes of many hardcore jazz fans, but this is not about the fans, this is about the music.

Much of the more "classical" jazz music follows a particular format: start out with a "head", which is the main theme of the piece, let each member solo, returning to the head at either the end, or between each solo. My problem is that the "widdly diddly" soloing, while technically proficient, and in the best cases, really beautiful and melodic, has always been a drag to me. I don't really even care for guitar soloing - I'd much rather hear lead lines played in service of the song, not as an excuse for showing off or for "getting down" in the heat of the moment.

I realize this is a serious oversimplification of a varied genre, and please forgive what may come across as ignorance - it's merely conjecture. There are, however, two large exceptions to my listening taste when it comes to jazz. The first is free jazz. Wild excursions into dissonance, arhythimc sounds skittering across the air, bleating raw and wild... it's essentially the spirit of punk music with the opposite approach: you have to be REAL good to make this primal noise, rather than the anyone can do it approach of punk rock. Nobody ever accused Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane of not being able to play.

The other exception, and the reason for all that wind-up, is when jazz players take themselves and their abilties out of the equation, and play for the moment that's in the air, not the next one. When the music sits and thinks and pulses and flows like a living organism. Miles Davis' The Complete In A Silent Way sessions is a perfect example of this.

Not strictly downtempo, the closest comparison I can make in the rock world is Can's Future Days, it's jazz without being strictly jazz, ambient without seeming motionless, and experimental without losing grounding. Mysterious and murky in ways that the more "rock world" lauded Bitches Brew isn't. Bitches Brew has cultural importance on its side, but the funky rhythms of that album have tainted most other "fusion" music for my ears. On the In A Silent Way sessions (which, I should point out for the cash-strapped, the official album is more than representative of this box set, on which both album tracks appear), it never loses its status as jazz music, but it is perhaps the most subtle and atmospheric jazz music I've ever heard. Electric pianos abound, but not quite in that "instantly dated" tone that a lot of Bitches Brew has, and every element is clearly within the jazz realm, but somehow, the whole is more avant-garde than the sum of its parts.

Of course, my other favorite Miles Davis album/sessions is The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, another dark, mysterious album that owes more to funk than jazz, but that's another story, and betrays what perspective I come at this music from. But the regard in which jazz fans hold In A Silent Way surprises me. While it has vague precedents in Miles' music, it stands as a major break to what he'd done before, while not quite ever sounding like anything he put out later. Sure, Filles de Kilimanjaro indicated, in hindsight, where things might be going, but Bitches Brew (released immediately after In A Silent Way) was a whole different creature, one that seemed to prove more influential on not only jazz fusion, but Davis' own future works. More percussion, more polyrhythm, and more creeping funk influence led to what is probably the pinnacle of that direction, 1972's willfully singular On The Corner, which seems like it's a descendent of a completely different lineage.

So what's so appealing about In A Silent Way? I dunno. And that's it. It's mysterious. I can only compare it to the moments BETWEEN lines in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the moments of deep mystery, tension, danger, stillness... by removing the head/solo/head/solo format, as well as the aesthetic, Davis and the rest of the band have managed to create jazz without jazz, jazz as ambient soundscape. It's a voodoo ritual, writhing and pulsing, crouching in the darkest corner, waiting for you to poke your head in, never making the concession to come out into the light. Ultimately standing on its own, it's a recording that neither gives ground nor takes it, daring you to come closer, luring you in, never letting you know what's on the other side.

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