Certain Songs #1144: Miles Davis – “Shh/Peaceful”

Album: In a Silent Way
Year: 1969

On one hand, only a decade separated In A Silent Way from Kind of Blue. But on the other hand, centuries separated the two records, as In a Silent Way mixed jazz and rock instrumentations, rhythms and production techniques into something that was completely and totally new under the sun.

And nearly 50 years later, I’m still not sure anybody has quite caught up to it.

With Joe Zawinul’s organ serving notice that “Shh/Peaceful” is taking place on a rocketship to the stars, before Miles even comes in, we have John McLaughlin chiming a wonderfully disjointed solo while both Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock play quasars on their electric pianos.

And while Miles finally does come in at the 1:43, you get the impression that it’s traveled light years to get there, and still has light years to go, even though entire civilizations rise and fall in between every single note, as he leaves so much space. That’s part of the brilliance of “Shh/Peaceful:” it’s somehow both entirely sparse and completely full at the same time.

And nowhere is that more true than the fuel for the rocketship: the drums of Tony Williams. In what was clearly a conceptual move — there exists an unreleased version with more conventional drumming — Williams plays the entire song on his hi-hat. No kick drum. No snare drum. No toms. No crashes. Just his hi-hat.

Well, that’s not entirely true: at 9:02, one of his hands slip, and there’s an accidental snare beat, just to remind you he’s human. But for the rest of “Shh/Peaceful” he’s spinning spinning spinning on his hi-hat, creating forward momentum without resorting to any kind of conventional beat. It contributes to the constant feeling of vertigo that’s a hallmark of this song.

Adding to that vertigo, of course, is the artificiality of the whole thing: not the playing so much, but the fact that Davis & producer Teo Macero essentially assembled “Shh / Peaceful” as opposed to just capturing a performance and putting it out. Just the bookending of “Peaceful” with the exact same performance of “Shh” was utterly groundbreaking.

But weirdly enough, the artificiality is part of its timelessness. Timelessness in both the fact that this music will last forever, but also in that it totally sounds out of any timeframe you would care to imagine.

And all of that combined, plus the fact that it’s still totally unknowable, makes it my favorite Miles Davis song, or performance, or whatever.


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