Sometimes jam sessions have the temperament of an old-fashioned Wild West shootout, with hyperskilled musicians doing everything they can to stun and/or dazzle everyone within earshot. That energy, once unleashed, can be viral: One extravagant “lookie-at-what-I-can-do” solo sparks another even more flamboyant one, resulting in an endless Faster! Louder! death spiral.
Usually when this happens I sit down – I’m not wired for “faster,” never have been able to make my fingers go that way. The other night at Milkboy Ardmore, during a boisterous cluster of tunes at Mike Frank’s Monday night session, somebody suggested Benny Golson’s challenging “Along Came Betty.” It’s often played at a comfortable medium swing tempo, but Jason Shattil, the phenomenally gifted pianist, wanted to take it up. Way up. We were into it before anybody could protest, shuttling along through Golson’s twisty post-bebop lines at near breakneck speed. When it came time for me to solo, I jumped in with my two left feet, rattling off chromatic lines that did not always land where they were supposed to. It was an unforgiving tempo, the kind that forces you to be “on” from the first note. All I had in my holster was variations on the theme of clutter.
Then Jason played. His first chorus was incredibly serene – and at the same time completely locked in. He approached the demanding tempo as though ambling down a country lane. As he navigated, he made everything sound easy: There was no frenzy in the cool-headed, wonderfully interconnected melodies. His improvisations grew more complex as he went along, but he never lost the easygoing aspect. For me, that was a huge lesson: Sometimes the way to engage listeners is to step back and take it easy. Even if things are moving at 100 mph. Especially then.
There are, of course, endless chances to apply these lessons. Tonight, we’ll do our best at Milkboy Philly’s weekly Tuesday happening, Jazz Casual. Music starts around 8:30 in the beautiful upstairs room, and tonight we’ve got Philadelphia legend Mike Boone as the special guest on bass! Also on board: Mike Frank (electric piano), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Eli Sklarsky (drums). Please come and sit in! Ballad players welcome!