I'm no expert when it comes to jazz, often finding that a lot of jazz music tends to fade into the background as you listen to it. Fine, I suppose, for coffee bars or dinner parties, when the focus tends to fall more on conversation, though perhaps not so riveting for solitary afternoon listens or late night exploration. Often, I've found jazz to be more rewarding when coupled with a more experimental rock sound, keeping the notion of long atmospheric improvisations intact, but advancing further with ideas of rhythm, melody and momentum.
One of my favourite albums is the self-titled debut of former Talk Talk member Mark Hollis, which takes elements of a jazz template and merges it with elements of rock and folk. It is through Hollis and his work with Talk Talk that I discovered the music of Miles Davis, with many people citing the influence of albums like Miles Smiles, Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way on those two Talk Talk classics, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. If you're familiar with those albums, particularly the more subdued Laughing Stock, then you'll have a vague idea of what to expect from this album... with the influence of In A Silent Way also finding it's way onto albums as disparate as Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, Dead Bees on a Cake by David Sylvian, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, Eno's Music for Films and Kid A/Amnesiac by Radiohead.
The music here is broken down into two tracks (although there are really four parts in total, or five if you count the reprise of the title track at the end) with the album opening with the epic improvisation piece, Shhh/Peaceful. The band that Davis had assembled for this album is immense, and, on the whole, would go on to help create the more dense and frightening sounds of his follow up album, the near legendary Bitches Brew. In A Silent Way is much more lethargic and (I suppose) more ambient (though that's a rather broad assessment!!) work compared to its follow up, though a few of the more tense instrumental arrangements do point towards tracks like Pharaoh's Dance and Spanish Key. However, on the whole, the album seems more like the natural progression from Kind of Blue into the kind of music that Miles would create for the latter half of his career.
The music covers a number of tempos, moving seamlessly from the lulled beauty of the title-track into It's About That Time, which is a little more robust. Miles was using three electric organs on this album, performed by luminaries like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, so the album has a sweeping, seamless sound that flows perfectly. Other musicians involved include Joe Zawinul on the third electric organ, John McLaughlin on guitar, Dave Holland on up-right bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The band is further complemented by Wayne Shorter's shimmering soprano saxophone, which adds the perfect balance to Davis's own astounding trumpet work (which is here, unrivalled).
The playing - right from the opening, hypnotic-slush of organs at the beginning of Shhh, right the way through to the interweaving trance-like horn-arrangements of In A Silent Way (which is the track that most pushes the similarities with something like Slim Slow Slider from Astral Weeks or the closing moments of Dick Parry's work on Shine On You Crazy Diamond) - is perfect, and creates a great atmosphere that never becomes stale. Miles and his producer Teo Macero arrange the album so that, even at it's most ambient, there's always something to hold our attention. Much of the music builds on Zawinul's organ, with a great dependency on the rhythm section of Holland and Williams. On top of this we get some great piano fills from Corea and Hancock, particularly on Peaceful, and some excellent and highly influential lead guitar work from McLaughlin (standouts abound throughout the second half of the album).
The music here manages to create a great atmosphere without substituting rhythm (take a listen to Miles' standout moment on It's About That Time to see what I mean)... whilst the use of instrumentation and the great approach to production (Davis and Macero using the idea of space and - unsurprisingly given the title implications - the use of silence and breaks to draw more attention to the notes being played!) is still as impressive as it would have been thirty-five years ago. It probably won't sound as revolutionary as it once did, what with other acts taking an influence from it, etc, though the music here is still expansive, rhythmic, intelligent and enjoyable... which is why In A Silent Way is one of those "jazz" albums that can probably be appreciated by people who don't necessarily understand or appreciate the genre.