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  • Writer's pictureMichael J. Pineda

Play It Slow

I got the wonderful opportunity to see a wonderful friend, Mike Bond (NY), and make a brand new one, Ryan Devlin (PA), during the weekend of January 22nd-24th, 2022. These cats were here in Chicago right before the second leg of Ryan Devlin's tour and were posted up in the Ukrainian Village. They let me hang with them in their Air B&B for three musical days of stories, food, conversations, shows, and jams. It was overwhelming how great of a time it was. Ryan was a blast and every time Mike and I get together, it's a ruckus. An absolute shindig. He is one of the wisest and most loving brothers I have ever met. He is a national treasure and a forever mentor to me.

Although there were many musical life lessons throughout those couple of days, the one I want to focus on is how Mike Bond talked to me a great deal about playing "honestly". This musical concept of honesty lies in "how we say it, instead of what we say". The telltale sign of a good improviser is in the truth that they convey and the story they are telling. You live it, then you play it. The improviser has the unique opportunity to tell a story that is true to the tradition and the history, while a reflection of one's unique lived experiences and voice.


The three of us went to Norman's Bistro's Sunday jam session and Giant Steps was called. As the cats went up one by one and sputtered out their best on Trane's changes, I sat with an iReal chart fingering the melody and the bass line so I could "fake it". It wasn't the first time I had checked out the Giant Steps changes, but I had put in no effort whatsoever to study them. I genuinely just didn't hear Trane changes when improvising, and I didn't feel like I had any urgency to try to do so. I quickly acknowledged that I did NOT really know Giant Steps, but shit...I was at the session! Cats left and right, energies high. I had just taken some heat on Caravan and I was feeling myself- these are the moments where I feel the most alive and ready to explore the musical landscape with an insatiable curiosity and a saxophone.


I went up there and played something true within my own bounds, but truly dishonest. AS IF I knew Giant Steps. I am not sure if I was looking for anything other than to play- I allowed my ear to guide me through something I knew I was not familiar with, and not in the good risk-taking kind of way. I allowed my ego to take the stage but missed the motion picture with my eyes glued shut. Classic. While we unpacked the session later over some BBQ chicken wings, Mike Bond told me he could tell when I was playing with my head and not with my heart. He mentioned Giant Steps. We both acknowledged that I did not know Giant Steps. He said some ideas were interrupted by more reactive lines and phrases (which I knew exactly what he was talking about) and only sometimes managed to shine through with truth and reason. His ears are black holes, and I trust him whenever he chooses to grace me with his feedback. I felt all of it at that moment and reflected on my own and realized that there is no spiritual nod in the dishonest. There is no emotional connection without openness. There is no protest without speaking up and sometimes screaming. Black American Music is and always has been a music of liberation; jazz is one of the best freedom fronts there is, and it is a form of disrespect to the music and the culture to be dishonest on that bandstand.


Cut to a particular scene; Mike Bond and I are jamming at my apartment and he decides to give me a musical life lesson, as he does. We started playing through some tunes and improvising- we landed on a slow blues. I take a solo and the energy is high- I'm excited. When I get too excited, I play too much. Mike noticed. He stopped me and said, "Slow down, man!"

Top of the form. I start with quarter-note ideas- slow, open breaths. I go back to my roots and play down the blues like I used to. Mike says that's the best thing he had heard from me all day. I FELT that it was the best thing I had played all day. Not only was it slow, but it was honest. I played the horn like it was my last time playing it- I realized at that moment I really do have something to say.


LESSON:

Play it slow. If you don't try to do too much, you will play only what you know. Only what you can offer at that moment in time. Only what you have. What we fail to realize at times is that this is the best contribution to the universe we could ever make.




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