In a Silent Way – Miles Davis (1969)

Miles Davis

Album artwork for In a Silent Way

Writing anything about a figure like Miles Davis, and his music, is a task not taken lightly by anyone who appreciates jazz music, even just a little.  The man clearly needs no introduction, and yet we sometimes struggle to understand what went on in his mind.  So did he, this writer imagines.

In many ways, 1969’s In A Silent Way, and not the more well-known Bitches Brew of 1970, marked Davis’ entree into the world of jazz fusion.  I say entree, but it was Davis along with Larry Coryell and Charles Lloyd who pioneered the genre, and as such, In A Silent Way  is one of the first jazz fusion albums.  So what is it that makes fusion, fusion?  Any jazz scholar will scoff at such a question, but it does deserve some thought.  The first, most obvious departure from Davis’ previous work is the instrumentation.  The electric guitar (John McLaughlin) and electric pianos (Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea…feeling the power yet?) were new additions to the lineup for Miles, and jazz as a whole.

The format of this particular album was different, as well.  In A Silent Way  was the first album to be cut and spliced by Miles’ longtime producer Teo Macero, and Macero followed the classical sonata format (exposition–development–recapitulation), a departure from the incumbent styles of jazz, hard bop and free jazz of the 1960s.  This format is used in both tracks/sides of the album.  Miles’ use of repetition and droning rhythm section parts can be traced back to John Coltrane’s 1965 A Love Supreme, and from there back to Ravi Shankar and India, both of which influenced Coltrane enough for him to name a son after the sitar player.  This combination of new musical instrumentation, format, and Eastern influence allowed Miles to begin his pursuit of “the best damn rock ‘n’ roll band of all time” which would groove hardest on Davis’ 1971 A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

“All-star” would be quite the understatement in describing Miles’ personnel choices for In A Silent Way.  On soprano saxophone is the ever-present Wayne Shorter, who became famous while writing and playing for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and moving on after a decade with Miles to form Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, who played organ on this album and co-wrote side two.  On electric guitar we find John McLaughlin, who was in the middle of an extremely busy two years: the previous month he’d recorded his debut album, Extrapolation; he’d just moved to New York from England to play in Tony Williams’ (yep, he played drums on this album, too) Lifetime trio with Larry Young; he’d soon befriend Billy Cobham and form one of the greatest fusion groups of all time, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  Sitting behind dual electric pianos are Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, two jazz titans who would go on to lead extremely successful groups of their own.  On bass is Dave Holland, whom Miles had picked up at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club the year before, and who was in the middle of an extraordinary first two years in the big time.  It’s often said that in jazz, especially jazz fusion, all roads lead to Miles Davis.  Perhaps you can see why.

Side 1 is “Shhh/Peaceful.”  The exposition/recapitulation, “Shhh,” features a droning D major in the bass and an even more repetitive line of sixteenth notes in the hi-hat, setting the stage for a musical experience that compels the listener to look within for meaning to the music, rather than from without (save that for side 2).  Every time I listen to Shhh/Peaceful, I come out on the other side unsure of how much time has passed (although I know it’s about 18 minutes), wondering why I didn’t choose to loop the track for as long as I can meditate. Inevitably, the listener will fall into a deep introspection during this track, as the stellar musicians continue their song into the distance.  Wikipedia’s categorization of this album into both “jazz fusion” and “space music” is apt.  Not to mention the name of the track.

Side 2, “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” starts off much more peaceful than even “Shhh,” opening with a pastoral open A chord from McLaughlin, a chord that gives the listener a sense of peace, and yet a suspicion of much energy to come.  The calm before the storm, perhaps. “It’s About That Time,” the development section, is all about that groove.  You know the one.  It’s been stuck in my head for years now.  Atop this simple yet infectious groove (we have Chick, Tony, and Dave to thank for that) sit two of the finest solos in all of Miles’ catalogue, plucked from some of the finest improvisers in jazz, McLaughlin, and Shorter. After a solo from Miles, “In A Silent Way” recapitulates, bringing the listener back to his senses.

Many critics have written many words about Miles Davis’ first fusion album, but Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs might have written it best: it was “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 improvisers 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.”

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Soliloquy – Michael Manring (2005)

Michael Manring

Album artwork for Soliloquy

It’s often said that by limiting your possibilities to only those that exist inside the box, as opposed to thinking outside the box, you are actually required to use much more creativity.  This may seem counterintuitive; since the days of grade school we have been taught that thinking outside the box is the key to unlocking our true potential. Now before we continue any further, let me first just say that I am by no means devaluing out-of-the-box cognition.  It is a wonderful and incredibly useful method, useful in just about any scenario life throws at you.  That being said, sometimes we overlook the significance of what’s already inside the box in favor of flashier, more appealing solutions.

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Alright alright, enough with the box metaphor already!  Isn’t this a blog for music?  I hear you, let’s move on.  The purpose of that whole long-winded introduction was to bring us to today’s main event: Michael Manring, a perfect example of a musician who uses the confines of the box to his advantage – the “box” in this situation being the bass guitar.  As L. Pierce Carson from the Napa Valley Register puts it, “Michael Manring can do more with a bass than even the most creative individual could imagine.”  See?  The box metaphor worked out after all.

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This Is What Happens – The Reign of Kindo (2011)

The Reign of Kindo

Album artwork for This Is What Happens

First things first, all of you should probably watch this.  You may have seen this video several years back when it gained quite a bit of circulation around YouTube.  This is the music of The Reign of Kindo, a jazz-rock group hailing from Buffalo, New York.  In April of 2010 they released their second studio album, and third release in total, called This Is What Happens on CandyRat Records.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the label, CandyRat is one of my most trusted sources for beautifully written modern acoustic music.  Musicians like Jon Gomm and Andy McKee, two of the most notable percussive fingerstyle guitarists, are represented by the label.  In short, its catalog is stocked to the brim with remarkable music quality.  So then, back to This Is What Happens.  What exactly is it that happens?  Press on, dear reader…

If you think about it, the world’s population of music enthusiasts can essentially be divided into two categories.  There are those who value originality and advanced musicianship above all else, sometimes to the point of pretentiousness and condescension towards “lesser” artists.  Then there are those who don’t care about any of that; they just want to dance around and sing catchy melodies.  Both groups have their limitations, but luckily that’s where The Reign of Kindo comes in.  Their music combines elements from both of these viewpoints into a single cohesive style, and the result is an extraordinarily melodic collection of tunes, rich in originality and soulfulness.

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Redivider – Dopapod (2012)

Dopapod

Album artwork for Redivider

I’ve got to say that one of my favorite things about the current music industry is this strong resurgence of jam band music and culture that’s been going on for the past several years.  As someone who wishes they had been alive to witness the explosion of psychedelic rock, progressive rock, and the jam band scene in the ’60s and ’70s, I am extremely happy about the genre’s relatively unimpeded longevity.  After the Grateful Dead’s disbandment in 1995 as a result of guitarist and frontman Jerry Garcia’s death, the band Phish stepped in to fill the gap.  Although they never achieved quite the amount of success and popularity that the Dead had, they certainly helped to keep the scene alive for the next decade.  They were also an integral part of the rise of large-scale music festivals in the modern era.  If you think about all of the festivals that host yearly events now – Bonnaroo, Coachella, Camp Bisco, Rootwire, Lightning in a Bottle, All Good, Wakarusa – the list goes on and on.

Dopapod is a group that is quickly rising to the forefront of the jam band scene.  Born in 2007, they recently released their third studio album, Redivider, on 12/21/12.  The entire record was recorded in a barn at Tyrone Farm, a solar powered farm in Pomfret, Connecticut. Despite the fact that it was released less than a year after their previous album, Drawn Onward (side note: if you haven’t picked up on this yet, the band really likes palindromes), there is nothing about Redivider that gives away any sense of rushed preparation.  As a matter of fact, the entire thing is pure, musical gold.

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Santana – Santana (1969)

Santana

Album artwork for Santana

So this is now the second album I’ve featured in the past week that was made over thirty years ago.  As a matter of fact, this very first album from the soon-to-be iconic group Santana, was released forty-four years ago in August of 1969.  Think about that for a second.  You may not have even been alive when this album came out – I certainly wasn’t.  To put this in a bit of context for you, The Beatles would release their swan song record, Abbey Road, about a month after Santana debuted.  Led Zeppelin would release Led Zeppelin II about a month after that, and Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma would hit record stores the following month, November.  All of those classic rock records your parents listen to?  Yeah, this album precedes most of those (not quite all of them, though).  The question is, why am I going so far back in time with these album reviews?  Why not focus more on the newest releases?

Well first of all, over half of my posts feature albums from the past two years, so I certainly wouldn’t say I neglect the newer material.  As a matter of fact, I pride myself on keeping up with the latest and (hopefully) greatest from each and every artist I follow.  That being said, it’s simply impossible to fully appreciate the extent of how far we’ve come as a musical society without acknowledging our heritage.  We’ve all come to accept this as fact – it’s why we always want to know the origin story of all our beloved superheroes, or why we study history in school.  By learning from the past, we can understand much more about the present, and we can use such knowledge to better prepare for the future.

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Other Things – Plini (2013)

Plini

Album artwork for Other Things

Today I’d like to present you with something a little shorter than the standard full-length album that I normally feature.  Shorter, yes, but it packs just as much of a punch. Other Things, by Plini, is a three-track record that clocks in at just under thirteen minutes.  It was released about four months ago in March, and it was recorded in a period of just six days in a bedroom.  Although your first inclination might be to lump this guy in with thousands of other “bedroom guitarists,” it’s clear that his strong musical vision sets him apart from the rest.

The main thing that I love about Other Things it is how remarkably different each individual song is from the remaining two. Starting with “Heart,” the EP starts out almost as if it might be some sort of indie-acoustic-folk record.  Several acoustic guitar tracks are layered together, along with an eclectic array of mallet percussion lines, dreamy synth effects, and a solid, tom-heavy drum beat to back it all up.  On top of all this is an electric guitar driving the melody and decorating the piece with some fantastic jazz-fusion riffs.  Overall, it’s the perfect way to ease the listener into a relaxed state of mind, prime for enjoyment.

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