|2. In A Silent Way / It's About That Time|
Where, on the musical spectrum, does jazz-fusion begin and prog end? This is frequently an extremely difficult question to answer, especially given the mutual influence between bands such as Yes, King Crimson, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the early 1970s. With the advent of Bill Bruford's combo, the line became even more blurred ... and, of course, Frank Zappa worked within both systems, making the question virtually irrelevant when it came to his music.
It can probably be agreed upon that progressive rock and jazz-fusion were two components of the same movement, involving an intermingling of diverse forms into a new whole. Jazz purists who balked at the very idea perhaps neglected the fact that jazz itself was born of such a combination. Rock purists of the modern age, such as Dave Marsh, generally avoid the matter entirely (perhaps due to socio-cultural theories involving rock music which would be disrupted if the self-proclaimed "elite class" of the movement would admit other possibilities). Either way, listeners were confused (and, in many cases, remain so unto the present age).
The question of where jazz fusion begins on a temporal basis is somewhat easier to determine. While the official party line is usually that Bitches Brew merits this honour, In A Silent Way (released a year earlier) might just as easily merit this award. The first electric album released by Miles Davis, it's a powerful testament to the combination of feeling and intelligence that could be explored within the genre. The proto-metalhead jazz-fusion guitarists of the late 1970s (one of whom made the jazz/prog link even more pronounced by joining Yes in the 1980s), as is commonly noted, took the form of the music while missing the content.
In A Silent Way is a very unusual album, merging at least three different musical styles within its constitution. While Davis and Shorter inject a feeling of "recent nostalgia" into the mix with their trademark solos, McLaughlin points the way to the future with his frequent acoustic interpolations. In the mean time, Zawinul presents organ lines that, in 1969, would have made the album more understandable to the average American psychedelic listener. Put the three together, and you have the makings for a major level triumph.
The structure of the music doesn't disappoint either. Both of the compositions are written in an intelligent ABA manner, with introductory themes leading to different developments, and eventually returning to their original state. "Shh/Peaceful" begins with Zawinul setting a rather funereal tone; McLaughlin joins in, Williams adds a remarkably restrained hi-hat feature, and the piece pushes ahead from there. In terms of soloing-vs-total time ratio, McLaughlin comes out as the primary star of the piece, including one particular solo that clearly paves the way for his Mahavishnu period. Davis and Shorter both provide excellent solos (as described above). Zawinul provides most of the second-layer accompaniment ... and Williams shows unbelievable restraint in remaining consistent all the way through the piece (no snare is to be found). Eventually, the initial theme is restated, which leads to everyone finally coming together for a full band statement. A triumph both of structure and performance.
"In A Silent Way/It's About That Time" begins, appropriately enough, in a comparatively silent way, with McLaughlin and Zawinul providing a gentle texture for the other musicians to build upon. The piece then abruptly shifts to "It's About That Time", a more up-tempo number (and probably the most traditional piece here, making Davis's immediate appearance rather unsurprising). As the piece develops, each of the musicians are allowed to make their respective statements (Shorter's solo is notable for its melody), with culminates in the drums finally being released for a more complete psychedelic-jazz statement by the entire group (with Davis finally dominating the music). The piece then gradually returns to "In A Silent Way", with McLaughlin and Zawinul providing the texture for others once again. Credit should be given also to Dave Holland for a solid performance throughout, including a more prominent role towards the end of the piece.
This is a jazz-fusion album. It's also an album which, along with Bitches Brew, every serious prog fan should own.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 22 July 1997)