John McLaughlin Reflects On “In a Silent Way”

July 1, 2009

“TWO THOUSAND NINE IS A VERY significant year for me for several reasons,” enthuses John McLaughlin. “It was in January 1969 that I found myself in the CBS studio in New York City with my perennial hero Miles Davis, just two days after arriving in the U.S. for the first time, having come from London to play with Tony Williams and Larry Young in Tony’s new group, Lifetime. In the studio with Miles were Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and, of course, Tony. That session had ramifications that are still active today.”

The band had been working on Zawinul’s composition “In a Silent Way,” but Davis wasn’t happy with the way they were playing it, so he looked to the neophyte guitarist. “The recording of ‘In a Silent Way’ was kind of nerve wracking for me since the last thing I expected was to be in the studio with Miles,” says McLaughlin. “I sweated a lot, but in the end, the actual direction of the recording of the tune was left to me by Miles himself. He asked me to play it alone on the guitar, and I basically threw out all the harmony and played it in E major. The recording light was already on and the tune just went its own way from the start. Afterward, I was not only surprised that Miles really liked what I had done, I was astonished that he had been able to pull something out of me that I would never have imagined.”

The session was also the start of McLaughlin’s lifelong friendship with Corea. “I had discovered Chick on a Montego Joe LP in 1967, and I knew right away that he was destined for greatness,” recalls McLaughlin. “After the In a Silent Way recording Chick and I became really good friends, and here we are 40 years on, and he still amazes me every time we play together. In those days we were just another two guys looking to play good music, but we were also looking for answers to the fundamental questions of existence. I guess this helped bring about a certain kind of complicity between us that still exists to this day. He is so easy to play with, but while this is easy to say, the actuality of it is founded on tremendous discipline and a profound love of music. He has both in spades.”

McLaughlin and Corea toured together earlier this year with their Five Peace Band, which also featured bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta (initial leg) and Brian Blade (final leg). The band played mostly newer material, but “In a Silent Way” made the set list for most of the shows. “We basically played it as we had 40 years ago,” says McLaughlin. “Chick brought in some harmonic variations, but otherwise the tune followed the original recording, though we played it as a duo. Then if there was time, we would transition into ‘It’s About That Time,’ which follows ‘In a Silent Way’ on the album, and the whole band would come in with the irresistible riff that Miles wrote for that tune.”

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