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The Haul: Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Cluster & Eno's Old Land

A late-summer trip to the greater Gloucester area justified by my wife’s trip to a nearby craft fair. I won’t complain.

112. Miles Davis – In a Silent Way LP – Columbia, 1969 – $5.50

Miles Davis's In a Silent Way

It’s unclear why I didn’t connect the dots and realize that yes, I enjoy the fusion-era Miles Davis that I’ve heard, and yes, I really enjoy the fusion-era Herbie Hancock that I’ve heard, so picking up In a Silent Way, which started Davis’s fusion era and on which Hancock plays electric piano, was just too logical. The answer is likely that Davis’s discography is downright overwhelming. Beyond some of the obvious touchstones, like the birth-issued copy of Kind of Blue, the fusion staple Bitches Brew, and the light, folk-influenced Sketches of Spain, it’s easy to get lost in such a sea of albums. I’m profoundly lucky that I washed up on In a Silent Way, since it’s filled me with a renewed vigor for the early days of jazz fusion.

What strikes me the most about In a Silent Way is how well each side flows, which is a credit to Davis and producer Teo Macero, who chopped up the initial recordings into moe manageable structures. Each side still has a definite flavor throughout, but the imposed structure keeps the soloing on point. The electric piano of Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea and the guitar of John McLaughlin create a constantly shifting foundation for each piece. Tony Williams’ drumming remains minimal throughout, which prevents the album from sounding too “rock,” but it also contributes to the drifting atmosphere of the LP.

I’ve seen a few mentions of this album’s impact on ambient music (Brian Eno named the instrumental “Zawinul” on Another Green World after this album’s organist, Joe Zawinul), and having just listened to a few Eno albums in the past few days, I can see some similarities. There’s too much going on, too much structure, too many solos to say that it’s anything more than an influence, but during the build-up of “In a Silent Way,” it’s hard to deny the similarity in atmosphere.

113. Cluster & Brian Eno– Old Land LP – Relativity, 1985 – $9.50

Cluster & Eno's Old Land

A compilation of the two earlier collaborations between Brian Eno and German experimental/ambient/electronic group Cluster, Old Land features songs from their 1977 release Cluster & Eno and their 1978 release After the Heat. Given that I’ll probably end up buying both of those releases down the line, this purchase was likely a mistake, but I needed my Eno fix.

Old Land does a remarkably good job with its sequencing; it feels like a well-thought out album, not a hastily put-together cash-in. Side A is heavier on both synths and Eno’s vocals, side B pulls things back for more of a somber, lonely feel. “Broken Head” sounds like the lurking futuristic background music of a mid-1980s science fiction film until Eno’s typically bizarre lyrics add another strange layer to the mix. “The Belldog” has a twinkling, descending melody, but it’s Eno’s lyrics that grabbed my attention: “I held the levers that guided the signals to the radio / But the words I receive, random code, broken fragments from before.” The song peaks with “I lose control and at last I am part of the machinery,” which involves such a bizarre joy for being one with technology that makes perfect sense for Eno. The introduction of strings in the song’s final minute is wonderful. The backwards vocals in “Tzima N’arki” are both beautiful and alienating, which is the best description for side A. Side B features a couple of lovely moments in the piano of “Warmut” and the strings of “Old Land.” I expect to play side B more often, since it’s among the finer sides of background music in Eno’s catalog, but “The Belldog” ranks among his best vocal tracks.