Monday Notes

In A Silent Way, a Joe Zawinul piece that Miles Davis made his own

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[Monday Notes no. 107] Great musicians have the ability to be inspired and stimulated by their peers. This is certainly the case with Miles Davis, who chose Joe Zawinul’s song In A Silent Way as the title for his eponymous album, a masterpiece recorded in 1969.

On that occasion, Miles Davis had three great pianists play together: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. The latter had composed In A Silent Way during a snowfall in Vienna, his hometown. Miles Davis, however, used Zawinul’s piece in his own way: by simplifying the harmony of the piece and cutting out part of it.

Evidently Joe Zawinul was not entirely satisfied with this recording made by Miles Davis. In fact he recorded the song again a year later, this time in a complete version with all the chords.

Miles Davis In A Silent Way Album Cover
The cover of Miles Davis’ album “In A Silent Way”

The main melody played by the soprano sax moves almost entirely on the E major scale, practically without tempo as it performs wide stops on different notes. The piece begins with two chords, Emaj7 and E7sus.

In a Silent Way, Joe Zawinul - inizio del brano
The song begins by alternating the chords Emaj7 and E7sus

These two chords have different harmonic functions, the first being a tonic chord and the second a dominant chord. Placing them together in this way, based on the same note, places the piece outside the rules of traditional tonal harmony.

In A Silent Way he alternates between modal and diatonic passages built on the E major or A major scale. The tonality of the piece is indeed ambiguous, and remains so until the end with a conclusion on C#m7 that does not clarify the matter, this chord being both the VI degree of E and the III degree of A.

In a Silent Way, Joe Zawinul  - fine del brano
The tonality of the piece remains ambiguous, suspended between E and A

Although this recording should in theory be closer to Joe Zawinul’s original idea, it is difficult to think that having played In A Silent Way under Miles Davis’ direction did not influence Joe Zawinul. In the liner notes to Zawinul’s album, it is Davis himself who emphasises the shared vision between the two musicians.

It is up to you to decide which of the two versions is the best. However, this is a rather pointless exercise, since despite the differences, both are wonderful.

Until next Monday

Download the lead sheet of In A Silent Way

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