A Minnesota Dryline

Almost two months have elapsed since my last post. An entire winter is now nearly behind me, and with meteorological spring having sprung as of yesterday, my eyes turn once again to the coming storm season.

MN Dryline 5102011Going through my old radar images, I came upon this one. Click on it to enlarge it, then note the station obs and wind barbs on either side of that fine line west of Minneapolis. That sure looks like a dryline to me, but what’s it doing wandering around central Minnesota like a little lost orphan?

The Great Lakes are not the land of drylines, but we do get them occasionally, and as out in the Great Plains, they can serve as a forcing mechanism for severe weather. Notably, in the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak, what Theodore Fujita called a “dry cold front” featured prominently in his analysis of the synoptic conditions. Although Fujita called the air behind the front “cooler,” a look at the station observations reveals that what really characterized the difference on either side of the “front” wasn’t a rapid drop in air temperature but in dewpoints, and a change in wind direction, with surface winds veering abruptly from the south to the southwest.

The radar grab shows similar conditions on May 10, 2011, with supercells initiating along a line of strong convergence. Where the southernmost cell is just starting to fire, check out the obs on either side of the fine line. The temperature is the same, 90 F degrees, but the dewpoint drop is as much as 13 degrees. That may not be as radical as what you’ll find in the Texas panhandle, but in the Great Lakes, it’s an eye-opener.

There were tornadoes in eastern Minnesota on this day: May 10, 2011, SPC Storm Reports. The location of the three reports on the SPC graphic leads me to think that the cell I mentioned in the previous paragraph may have been the culprit. With dewpoints in the upper 60s to low 70s, it appears to have had plenty of juice to work with.

For a dryline to occur in the Great Lakes means that a system is potent enough to wrap in dry air this far east from the desert Southwest. That means that a lot of things have fallen into place to create a potentially tornadic setup, including not only an obvious lifting mechanism but also ample bulk shear and moisture, and southerly or southeasterly surface winds. In other words, here in my backyard, a dryline is a red flag that things are about to pop and a chase day is at hand.

Thoughts on the I-94 Pileup near Kalamazoo

By now, the whole nation has viewed a blizzard of video clips of the massive and deadly 193-car/truck pileup on I-94 in Galesburg, Michigan, between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The incident occurred just forty miles straight south of where I live. Since I’m well-acquainted with both that highway and what yesterday’s weather was like, I’ll share a few thoughts.

First, winter storm warnings were in effect, and people were cautioned not to venture out if they didn’t have to. No one can say they weren’t warned; the NWS and media did their jobs. Moreover, some sections of highway were closed due to extreme driving conditions, something that just doesn’t happen in this state.

Second, and significantly, I-94 is a major east-west truck artery. Whenever I’m on it, I’m struck by the number of semis I see. There are a lot of them, considerably more than on I-196, I-96, and US-131. Of course, there are plenty of big rigs on those highways as well; there just seem to be more on I-94, to the point where I feel like truckers own that particular interstate. This is nothing against truckers and not some kind of moral issue; it’s just my observation. If an accident happens on that road, then if it doesn’t initiate with a semi, it can easily and almost immediately involve one .

Third, roads yesterday were extremely icy. On my drive to and from Caledonia to my part-time job in Hastings down M-37, a major secondary route, I averaged around 35 mph and often less. In open areas, the blowing wind created “road smoke,” and on the way back, trucks coming from the opposite direction blew up massive clouds of snow, creating temporary whiteouts. Trucks are really good at doing this, particularly during weather like yesterday’s, when extremely cold temperatures makes for fine snow rather than big, chunky flakes.

If the conditions on I-94 were anything like what I encountered on M-37, where people were driving at an appropriate speed for conditions, then I have to wonder what on earth folks were thinking to be clipping along at much faster speeds.

It’s rarely the weather conditions that get people in trouble; it’s how people respond to them—or more exactly, fail to respond. Unfortunately, responsible drivers suffer as well. You can be driving 30 mph, putting plenty of distance between yourself and the guy ahead of you so you can stop in time to avoid either rear-ending that person or going off the road, only to have the idiot behind you slam into you at 60 mph. I’m sure that scenario repeated itself multiple times yesterday.

Road conditions can change fast and catch you and other drivers unaware. Yesterday, M-37 through Caledonia wasn’t bad; a combination of road salt and local traffic had rendered much of the pavement wet rather than icy. But on the south end of town, beginning at 100th St., conditions changed abruptly from driveable to treacherous.

One fatality is a tragedy, but after watching video of the pileup as it occurred, I’m amazed and glad that more people didn’t die. In addition, twenty-three were injured, and again, that figure could easily have been higher. The bottom line is simple: Don’t drive too fast for road conditions, and sometimes don’t drive at all. I would add, avoid routes with heavy truck traffic such as I-94, as trucks can create whiteouts in their wake.

For outstanding, well-researched  insights and safety tips on winter driving, visit Dan Robinson’s website, Icy Road Safety.

An Interview with The Weather Channel

Henryville High SchoolYou’re looking at the Henryville, Indiana, high school, photographed from across the street on September 30, 2014. By all appearances, there’s nothing remarkable about it. But if you’re aware of its recent history, then you know differently. Two and a half years ago, on the evening of March 2, 2012, there wasn’t much left of this building or, for that matter, a good part of Henryville. Roaring out of the southern Indiana hills and across I-65 to the west shortly after three o’clock that afternoon, a large tornado inflicted EF-4 damage in this small community, leveling much of the school and residences east of it.

Like many a tornado-ravaged town, Henryville pulled together, took care of its own, and rebuilt. Today, the resilient spirit of its citizens shows not in any marks of the devastation that transpired there that afternoon but by the lack thereof. Where piles of Henryville Hillsidedebris once lay, new houses and commercial buildings have sprouted. The school is in full sway, with new buildings in place of the ones flattened by the storm. The only evidence I could see that Henryville is a tornado town–and the clue is noticeable, chiseled into the landscape–is a swath of shattered trees where the wind blasted the hillside east of the school. That memento left by the town’s dark visitor is not soon expunged.

On Tuesday the 30th, I made a side trip through Henryville on my way down to Clarksville, just north of the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. I and my friend and long-time chase partner, Bill Oosterbaan, had been asked to do an interview with Karga 7, a production house for The Weather Channel, for a show spotlighting the Henryville tornado. A couple months ago, Nichole, a producer with Karga 7, contacted me to inquire about using my footage of the tornado, which Bill and I had caught at its formative and maturing stages north of Palmyra, Indiana. I directed her to my video broker, Kendra Reed of KDR Media, and Kendra negotiated agreements for Bill and me, and  now here I was, heading down I-65 toward Clarksville’s Clarion Hotel, where the interview was to be held.

I felt both pleased and nervous at the prospect of being featured on national media. I’m a low-key kind of guy, and while, as a professional wordsmith, I can communicate colorfully and descriptively when I need to, I’m not by nature a showcase personality. So I wasn’t sure what kind of interview material I’d make. Writing allows me to edit my words till they reflect my thoughts to my own satisfaction, but an interview doesn’t afford that luxury. I hoped to shed a realistic and positive light on storm chasing and chasers, neither of which I think the public understands very well; and I wanted to give a strong message for people to take personal responsibility for their own safety and that of their loved ones by paying close attention to severe weather forecasts and warnings and not depend on sirens.*

Nichole, her two camera persons, and the guy who greeted us at the door seemed like great people. They were professional, courteous, and enjoyable to work with. The actual interview lasted at least an hour and a half, and I think Bill and I did a good job answering the questions, playing off of and supplementing each other’s responses. In a couple instances, our answers differed. For instance, Nichole asked, “Did you know when you first saw it that this was a killer tornado?” I said no. We had caught the funnel at its inception and stayed with it through early maturity, and I felt comfortable saying it was a violent and potentially lethal tornado; however, “killer tornado” isn’t about storm strength but verified human impact, something quite different. All tornadoes have the potential to kill, but most don’t, and that includes the relatively few violent ones. Not until later would I learn of this storm’s heartbreaking toll on New Pekin, Henryville, and Marysville.

Bill said yes, but he had processed the question differently from me. He does business frequently in nearby Louisville and knows the area. He was aware of towns to the northeast that the tornado might impact, and he knew it could cross an interstate highway. Bill evidently felt comfortable with calling the tornado a killer at the onset, based on its violence. It boils down to a matter of how each of us interpreted the question. I think he and I would agree that neither of us knew what the storm was going to do, but we did know what it could do if it hit a community, and we very much hoped that wouldn’t happen.

Between Bill and me, I think we did a good job of communicating two messages: (1) the tension storm chasers experience between their passion for storms as the magnificent forces of nature they are versus the concern we feel for those who lie in harm’s way; and (2) the excellence and limitations of severe weather warnings, and the need for people to be proactive in safeguarding themselves against violent weather.  I hope those messages will come across clearly in our part of the TWC episode. We did our best, and from here, our content rests in the hands of the film editors. I look forward to seeing how it all turns out. Interview aside, the footage Bill and I got of the tornado was spectacular and affords a unique perspective of the tornado. I chalk that up to good forecasting, serendipity, and Bill’s knowledge of the area.

On March 2, 2012, Bill and I had been chasing together for sixteen years, beginning well before technology improved the odds of seeing tornadoes. We had logged thousands of miles, busted many a time, gradually improved our forecasting skills, seen some amazing storms, and had a blast overall. The thing that kept us going was, and remains, sheer love for the storms, not money or media attention. But it’s nice to think that a little of both has finally come our way. Many thanks to Kendra Reed for her invaluable role in negotiating with Karga 7. Kendra, you are the absolute best!

The show will air this coming spring, probably sometime in April.

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* Civil defense sirens are the least dependable of warnings. When tornado victims say they “had no warning,” what they often mean is that the sirens weren’t sounded. I’ll reiterate here what I said in the interview: don’t count on sirens. They may or may not sound, depending on the judgment of your local civil defense; and if they do sound, you might not hear them for various reasons. Sirens are of limited effectiveness, and to rely on them as your primary warning is to live in the last century and jeopardize your safety. Today’s warning system harnesses everything from local television to mobile phones to social media and more, and while it’s still possible for the occasional rogue tornado to slip in under the radar, the big storm systems such as the one on March 2, 2012, are invariably well-forecast and well-warned.

August Tornado in Macomb: A Lake Breeze Landspout

Monroe TornadoOn Wednesday afternoon, August 20, 2014, a small tornado spun up beneath a seemingly garden-variety summer thunderstorm and did EF0 damage in Lennox Township on the eastern side of the state. I first became aware of it courtesy of a Facebook post by fellow Michigan-based storm chaser C. J. Postal. He wrote, “I give up. You win, Michigan.” Underneath was a photo of  an unmistakable, nicely shaped funnel cruising over the treeline.

My first thought was, What does he mean? The photo couldn’t have been taken in Michigan. No way. It simply wasn’t tornado weather–no ripping jets, no curved hodographs, just weak westerly winds and, here on the west side of the state, beautiful, cloudless skies. Over on the east side, the radar showed just a scattering of small red zits around the thumb and down by Ann Arbor: bland, pulse-type storms capable of squeezing out a few bolts but certainly not a tornado.

Yet as you can see from the photo,* one of them did spin up a tube. The National Weather Service logged the following report.

A BRIEF EF0 TORNADO TOUCHED DOWN AROUND 204 PM ON PLACE ROAD BETWEEN 29 MILE AND 30 MILE ROAD IN LENOX TOWNSHIP. PATH LENGTH WAS ESTIMATED TO BE 0.25 MILES WITH A PATH
WIDTH OF 100 YARDS. WIND SPEEDS WERE ESTIMATED TO BE 75 MPH. FIRE OFFICIALS REPORTED SEVERAL TRAILERS BEING BLOWN OVER AS WELL AS A ROOF TO A GARAGE BEING TORN OFF.

What the heck happened?

Michigan happened.

Seriously. Not only does this state not get tornadoes when conditions look ripe for them, but it does get them when no one expects them. It happened a couple years ago in Dexter. It happened last month just a few miles from me in Cutlerville. And now, two days ago, it happened over near Macomb.

Wind profiles were unimpressive. Bulk shear was negligible. About the only things in place, as I recall, were adequate surface-based CAPE and moisture, but this was by no means supercell weather. “Severe” just wasn’t in the picture.

However, one easily overlooked element unique to the Great Lakes probably was present and might well have been the culprit. That ingredient? The onshore breeze blowing off of Lake St. Clair.

Twenty-six miles long and twenty-four miles wide, with 430 square miles of surface area, the lake is the largest body of water in the Great Lakes region after the Great Lakes themselves. It is easily large enough to generate its own lake breeze. On its western shore, that breeze is an easterly breeze which, backing against an overall westerly wind regime, can enhance low-level helicity or even produce it when none would otherwise exist.

That’s my theory, anyway, and I think it holds true not just for Lake St. Clare but even moreso for the western sides of Lakes Huron, Erie, and Michigan, where the lake breezes blow inland from the east. Storms moving into such an environment may, under the right conditions, get just the added low-level twist they need to turn an ordinary updraft into a tornado.

That, I believe, is what happened last Wednesday. The mechanism was probably that of a landspout. It certainly wasn’t that of a supercell thunderstorm. None of the storms I saw on the radar that day looked capable of producing a mesocyclone; they were non-severe little blips on the radar. But they were surface-based. And that combination of an updraft with preexisting vertical vorticity evidently did the trick.

I’ve seen enough other examples of storms in this state that went tornadic, or at least developed rotation, as they approached the eastern coastline to think that the lake breeze plays a role in a good percentage of cases. No doubt the same holds true for the northern Chicago area north up into Wisconsin inland from Lake Michigan.

What I’m saying may be nothing new to NWS meteorologists, but I don’t recall ever seeing it discussed. Then again, I rarely read KDTX’s forecast discussions, so maybe that’s why. I’m a KGRR man, but here in West Michigan, while our westerly lake breeze creates convergence, I doubt it contributes to helicity in the same way as the easterly breezes coming off of Lakes Huron, Erie, and St. Clare.

I’ve never seen the lake breeze’s possible role in storm rotation and tornadogenesis discussed to any great extent, and I think it merits recognition as a uniquely Great Lakes phenomenon. So I’m throwing it out here, with the caveat that I’m just an amateur forecaster, not a trained meteorologist. It would be great to get the thoughts of professional forecasters as well as other Great Lakes storm chasers who have considered how the easterly lake breeze may sometimes enhance storm severity.

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* I would like to credit the photographer, but having exercised due diligence, I’m unable to locate that person. If you took the picture, or if you know who did and how I can reach them, please contact me.

Crumpophonist Irving Freen Debuts His New CD, Aaaarrrggh!

Back in my heyday as a college music student, I had a subscription to Down Beat magazine. I was a Down Beat junkie, and among the things I eagerly looked forward to each month were the record reviews. It has been a long time since I’ve riffed through a Down Beat, but I just peeked online, and the legendary jazz magazine looks to have successfully made the leap into the digital age and appears to be going strong. Moreover, I’m pleased to see that the recording reviews are still a mainstay for the publication—and why not? With links to Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes, they ought to pack plenty of marketing muscle.

But what happened to the ratings? Looking at these online “Editor’s Picks,” I don’t see the old, familiar five-star system that I knew and loved. Has that gone away, or am I just missing something? Boy, am I out of the loop. Back in the 1980s, every album got a rating of anywhere from zero stars (Translation: “This CD sucks so badly, your room may implode”) to five stars (“Transcendent. The artist qualifies for sainthood”). How could I forget?

I wrote the following piece years ago as a spoof of a Down Beat review by a hard-bitten jazz critic giving his take on the first album by crumpophone wizard Irving Freen. Rarely does the F# crumpophone attain the splendid heights to which Irving takes it. For that matter, few are those who play the crumpophone or have even heard of it. There are reasons whybut I’ll let you find out for yourself. Read on.

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CD REVIEW

Artist: Irving Freen

Album Title: Aaaarrrggh!

Rating: ˜˜˜˜˜

Let me say up front that I’m not easily impressed. What passes for jazz today is pabulum to the ears of one suckled on the fiery wine of hard bop, and the current crop of artists has for the most part had little to say that hasn’t been said before and said better.

So when I first heard of a young lion by the name of Irving Freen, my gut response was indifference.

“Ya gotta hear this guy,” they told me. “He’s incredible!”

Yeah, right. “Okay, so let’s hear Mr. Incredible’s CD,” I grunted, yawning politely to conceal my boredom.

I changed my attitude as soon as I heard the first cut.

Irving Freen is a crumpophone player of the highest order. Of the few who have wrestled with the quirky instrument, Freen is the undisputed king. Flawless technique, awesome creativity, and a haunting tone that reminds me at once of the cry of a curlew and the mating bellow of a bull hippo . . . it’s hard not to wax rhapsodic over this thrilling new artist. Where has he been up till now, I wondered?

Well, for one thing, purchasing the space necessary to play the crumpophone. Probably one reason the instrument has had so few practitioners is that most musicians simply can’t afford the acreage. The F# crumpophone humps over approximately two-and-a-half acres of real estate. Toss in scaffolding, a small shed for generators, and a neckstrap, and you’ve got one pricey instrument. And that’s not even counting the eighty-acre buffer zone required by law to keep the neighbors from complaining. Or the manpower involved in getting everything into a gig bag in time for rehearsal.

Then there’s the matter of expression. It’s hard to forge a truly compelling voice on an instrument with a range of only half an octave. Freen has conquered this limitation by augmenting his tonal palette with a remarkable series of “found sounds,” ranging from screams and howls that arise spontaneously whenever he gets his lips stuck in the mouthpiece, to assorted bird songs and animal calls provided by numerous sparrows, chipmunks, owls, elk, frogs, space aliens, and other life forms that wander into any of the horn’s nine bells and get lost in the mile-and-a-half of tubing.

Freen has also met the technical difficulties of the crumpophone with astonishing ingenuity. The spacing of the keys at thirty-foot intervals has long posed a problem for crumpophone players, who have never been able to improve their technique beyond the speed with which they can sprint from one key to the next. This limitation has made tempos above 4mm impractical and is the reason crumpophonists prefer ballads to bebop.

Freen, however, has met and mastered the challenge, paving the way for a new order of crumpophonist. Directing a powerful stream from a fire hose, Freen is able to shift pressure instantly from one key to the next without moving from his position, achieving a dexterity hitherto considered impossible. Not only so, but by using more than one hose, he is able to depress multiple keys, expanding the capabilities of the horn by a breathtaking three notes. Since these notes lie seven octaves above the normal range of the horn, they are unfortunately well beyond the realm of human hearing; however, they do allow the crumpophone to double as a highly effective dog whistle.

Well, all this is fine, you say, but can the man play?

Do bears eat popes in the woods?

Just listen to Irving Freen’s first cut on this album. “Ground Midnight” ought to convince the most skeptical listener that here is a crumpophonist who knows his way around a ballad. Granted, it would be nice to hear a crumpophonist who knows his way through a ballad, instead of sidestepping things like chord changes and well-connected lines. Still, “Ground Midnight” is instructive to anyone who wants to find out just how far a single note held for an entire tune can take the listener into the realms of sheer, soul-dripping expressiveness. Not too far, it turns outnot so far, say, as the sound of a blown tire flapping on the highwaybut still well beyond where other crumpophonists have ever gone.

Having demonstrated his way with a ballad, Freen next gives us a taste of his “new music” chops. “Come Out With Your Hands Up!” is an apt name for the foray into frenzy that is cut number two. Here is well-organized pandemonium at its best, as the crumpophonist delves into his seemingly inexhaustible found-sound storehouse.

Against a backdrop of swirling bop harmonies, Freen delivers a masterful, almost overwhelming barrage of bent notes, cacophony, screams, animal noises, explosions, machine gun fire . . . all ripping along at the inconceivable tempo of 400 beats per minute and climaxing with an exceptionally effective howitzer bombardment. The sound of rending lumber is a brilliant touch, capturing the poignant moment when Freen’s pole barn is blown to pieces by a cleverly aimed note.

The arrival of the police provides a timely and sensitive vocal element. A command barked through a megaphonesubtle, yet crisp and authoritative in the backgroundsuggests the origin of the tune’s title. The shattering-glass effect was achieved by the tasteful introduction of tear gas canisters into the sound mix through the living room window.

If I have one complaint, it’s a minor onea slight muddiness to the sound at the precise point where the door is broken down. It kept me from fully enjoying Freen’s ensuing scuffle with the SWAT team before being ultimately dragged away. Still, this is unquestionably a five-star performance, and Freen is to be congratulated as soon as he’s allowed to receive visitors.

Incidentally, the above explains the brevity of this CD. Fifteen minutes is admittedly not standard album length, and for that reason some may balk at the price. The truly discriminating, however, will consider $29.99 a trifling sacrifice to pay for a taste of crumpophonery at its finest. Those who like their jazz served hot with adrenaline will look forward to the next offering from this young firebrand. Don’t hold your breath, thoughI’ve a hunch it won’t be coming any time soon.

 

 

July 6, 2014, Cutlerville Tornado

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Tornado damage southwest of Division and 54th St.

It is a weird feeling when a tornado strikes the neighborhood where you used to live, particularly when you weren’t expecting tornadoes at all that day. That’s how it was two-and-a-half weeks ago on Sunday, July 6. No one saw it coming–not anyone who lived in the stricken area, not the National Weather Service, not any Michigan-based storm chasers I know of, and certainly not me. All I thought was, “Dang, that’s some crazy lightning coming out of that cell to my northwest!” even as an after-dark tornado chugged its way from Byron Center across Cutlerville and Kentwood toward its last gasp near Breton Road south of 28th Street.

Turning onto Andover St. from Eastern Ave.

Turning onto Andover St. from Eastern Ave.

I’m writing about it only now because I’ve had my hands full with other things. It’s no longer news, but it certainly deserves some kind of writeup in this blog. After all, it was the most significant tornado to hit the Grand Rapids area in years, it caught the NWS by surprise, and it missed my old apartment by only a block. (Come to think of it, another tornado in 2006 also missed my present apartment by only a block, but I wasn’t around to see it. I was heading home from my previous day’s chase in Illinois. Lots of irony there, but I’ll leave it alone and stay on topic.)

The Storm

IMG_2743

Tree uprooted along Division Ave. south of 54th St.

It was evening, and I was parked by the railroad tracks out near Elmdale, practicing my saxophone–which, if you know me, you understand is a regular habit of mine. The heat and humidity of the day had built to a slow boil beneath a capped atmosphere, but it appeared that the cap was breaking. Through the haze, I could see what looked like mushy towers off to my north. Right around sunset, I saw lightning streak through a cloud bank moving in from the west and thought, Nice. Bring it on. With mid-level winds forecast to be weak, I wasn’t expecting more than garden-variety storms, but given this year’s largely stormless storm season here in Michigan, any kind of flash and boom would be welcome.

With my practice session not feeling particularly inspired, I decided to call it and head home. The storm didn’t appear to be moving fast–not surprising, given the weak steering winds–but just north of my path . . . wow, that lightning was ramping up something fierce. I contemplated intercepting the cell, which clearly was quite active, but I had neither my laptop and radar with me nor my camera, nor, frankly, much desire. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit at home and let a storm rumble overhead.

By the time I arrived in Caledonia, the cell was flickering like a strobe light, and for half a minute, with more lightning advancing from the west, I thought I would sit in the church parking lot on the west end of town and let myself get eaten. Then I thought, Nah. Slow-moving storm with a lot of precipitable water–I just wasn’t into getting drenched during the mad dash from my car to my apartment. Besides, something in me really wanted to take a gander at the radar.

Meso Kentwoo

Mesocyclone over Kentwood, Michigan.

Once inside, I fired up GR3. Base reflectivity showed an amorphous clump of cells surrounded by lots of green: pretty much the disorganized, high-precipitation mess I expected. Then, out of pure force of habit, I switched to storm-relative velocity. Hmmm . . . what was that? Weak rotation just west of the airport radar seven miles north of me? That seemed odd. Curious, I back up a scan, which showed that the rotation had been stronger over Kentwood a few minutes earlier (see image.) Time for a look at the VAD wind profile. Well, now: mid-level winds were stronger than I had expected, around 40 knots, with southerly winds veering nearly 90 degrees through the lowest 4,000 feet. That would explain that. Going by reflectivity only, I’d never have suspected, but there it was, a definite mesocylonic signature. What did the previous scan show?

Yikes. Really? There over South Division Street, sitting on top of Cutlerville–that was one potent-looking couplet.* Kind of scary, really. Surface-based CAPE was something like 2,000, and forecast low-level helicity was more than adequate, over 200 m2/s2 in the lowest kilometer. Still, reflectivity looked like crap, the storm was wrapped in rain and not even severe-warned, and besides, this was Michigan. And that was two scans ago; the rotation had weakened considerably as it approached the airport. That would be the end of things.

Supercell organizing near Ionia.

Supercell organizing near Ionia.

But it wasn’t. As the storms moved east, the low-level jet spiked considerably, and even the 500 mb wind got a brief burst of 50 kt. Over by Ionia, a cell began to organize, and this time there was no mistaking the telltale look of a supercell in the reflectivity product. KGRR issued a severe thunderstorm warning with mention of the possibility of a tornado.

A scan later, storm-relative velocity shows pronounced rotation. Base reflectivity (not shown) also showed a well-defined hook.

A scan later, storm-relative velocity shows pronounced rotation. Base reflectivity (not shown) also showed a well-defined hook.

There were in fact four tornadoes according to the SPC’s final tally. The last three off to the east were brief EF0s, but the first one, which had initially caught my attention, did high-end EF1 damage in Cutlerville and injured six people.

Damage in My Old Neighborhood

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This used to be a warehouse on the west side of Division Street.

After doing its worst damage on the west side of Division Street, the tornado moved northeast through my old neighborhood, Leisure Acres. The second photo at the top shows the view that greeted me as I turned off of Eastern Avenue onto Andover Street. Halfway down Andover, my old apartment was untouched, but just a block east (and no doubt to the south, though I didn’t look) was a trash heap: trees snapped and uprooted, big branches torn off, here and there part of a roof missing–all the signs of a weak tornado. But of course, weak is a relative word; a wind that can do that kind of damage is anything but weak, as those in its path would be quick to point out. Nevertheless, there’s a significant difference between a 100 mph wind that does mostly minor structural damage and a 180 mph wind that levels homes completely.

House on Andover St. with its roof and side ripped off.

House on Andover St. with its roof and side ripped off.

Half of the photos in this post were taken in the Leisure Acres neighborhood along my old street, Andover; the rest were taken on the west side of Division south of Fifty-Fourth Street. The damage on Andover was primarily tree damage, though that was obviously significant, and as you can see, homes didn’t escape unscathed. The worst appeared to have been the house shown to the right with part of its roof and side ripped out out by the wind.

I was told that much worse damage occurred to the west along Clay Avenue, and while I didn’t try to enter that area, a brief jaunt down Division Street revealed places where the damage was more intense. The most significant was what appeared to have been a large warehouse building that got completely destroyed–just a pile of blocks and steel beams, as you can see in the photos.

One good egg. He just showed up with his chainsaw, ready to help.

One good egg. He just showed up with his chainsaw, ready to help.

In the aftermath of severe weather events, communities tend to pull together and ordinary heroes emerge from outlying areas, bringing with them such skills as they possess and the desire to make life a little easier for those dealing with the destruction of their property. This man with the chainsaw was wandering along the street from house to house, inquiring whether anyone needed help sawing up downed trees. Giving what he had to offer. I asked his name and wrote it down, and now I’ve lost it. In the very slim chance that he should happen to read this article: Bravo, sir! Generously played.

“We Had No Warning”: The NWS’s Dilemma

Of course the NWS got hammered. “We had no warning,” storm victims said–and while most of the time that’s untrue, in this case they really had no warning. But before anyone makes the usual foolish comments about the NWS’s ineptitude and how they never get anything right–which is simply not the case–it would pay to understand a few things about tornadoes in Michigan.

Let’s start with this fact: The typical tornado-breeding systems of the kind that produce significant (EF2 and higher) tornadoes get forecast quite effectively here in West Michigan, as elsewhere in the country. Meteorologists are on top of such setups; they watch these systems develop days in advance and are most certainly monitoring each one closely as it arrives, with varying degrees of concern depending on its characteristics.

Nothing left but a pile of cement blocks, wood, and steel.

Nothing left but a pile of cement blocks, wood, and steel.

That leaves the atypical tornado-breeders: systems whose features wouldn’t automatically trigger alarm, whose storms may occasionally produce brief, weak tornadoes that spin up with little or no advance notice. Storms like these–often squall lines and sometimes, as in the case of July 6, unremarkable-looking rainy blobs–produce no persistent, telltale circulation in a storm’s mid-levels that a radar can detect twenty minutes before a tornado forms. Such storms are difficult to impossible to warn. In the case of a squall line, small circulations can hop around from scan to scan on the radar, now here and now there, and most of them never produce. The rare tornado that does occur can materialize between radar scans, which until very recently have taken four-and-a-half minutes to complete in severe weather mode. A lot can happen in that time, and on July 6, it did.

Without going into details that most of my readers are no doubt familiar with, the lads at KGRR deal with proportionately more of these atypical scenarios than forecasters west of the Mississippi. The difference between a Great Plains supercell and the kind of stuff we normally get in Michigan is substantial, and for forecasters here, that means fewer opportunities to look like heroes and plenty more situations in which they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. When they issue a warning and nothing happens–which is frequently the case with squall lines–the public accuses them of crying wolf; when they don’t issue a warning and a tornado pops up out of nowhere, the public thinks they’re idiots.

Debris festoons a tree and litters a yard on Andover St. a block from my old apartment.

Debris festoons a tree and litters a yard on Andover St. a block from my old apartment.

They are far from idiots. They are experts who deal with factors in the warning process that most people know nothing of. Their job is not an easy one, and anyone who believes he or she could do better is woefully ignorant of the complexities of severe weather and warnings. Think otherwise? Fine. Go ahead and spend a few weeks at the peak of severe storm season, trying to nail that volatile blob of Jell-O called the atmosphere to the wall. It’ll be an eye-opening experience as, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, you discover the difference between forecasting and fortune-telling.

Ironically, the Cutlerville tornado occurred shortly before KGRR was slated to implement the new SAILS update to their radar software. It’s amazing to see how drastically this software reduces scan times in severe mode–I now get level 3 downloads in as little as a minute and always substantially less than the nearly five minutes of pre-SAILS days. Had SAILS been operative on July 6, the tornado might well have been detected in enough time to issue a warning. Or not. Microscale conditions can change so rapidly that some tornadoes will still slip through the cracks. But the odds of detection have just improved significantly.

——————

* The image shows the meso over Kentwood. I have tried unsuccessfully to render the more vigorous Cutlerville scan on both level 2 and level 3 data from NCDC archives on GR2AE and GR3. After several hours of fiddling with the data files and consulting with chasers who are more technically gifted than I, I’ve concluded that I need to get some hands-on help figuring out how to use NCDC’s archived data. Sorry–I’ve done my best.

Storm Chasing: The Anthology: An Interview with Blake Naftel

Blake2Amid my collection of storm chasing videos is an old VHS titled A Spotter’s Guide to Michigan Convective Weather. Produced in 2000 by Blake Naftel in collaboration with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, the award-winning video is a vintage reflection of Blake’s dual passions for storm chasing and videography—a combination shared by countless chasers, but which in Blake’s case, having developed in a unique way at an opportune time, has forged a path that brings him today to the verge of a remarkable undertaking. But let me set the stage. . . .

Long past are the days when storm chasing was the little-known, eclectic pursuit of a handful of pioneering weather photographers and researchers crisscrossing the Great Plains. Today, hundreds of chasers routinely pound the roads of Tornado Alley, and more are entering the fray all the time, influenced by what they’ve seen on TV but lacking any awareness of where it came from.

Yet storm chasing has roots—deep roots, a legacy of personalities, events, and endeavors that deserves to be cherished but is in danger of being lost. The time to preserve that rich heritage is now, when most of those who have created it are still with us. Now is the time to honor the colorful history of storm chasing and connect it to today’s talented generation of younger chasers and weather scientists and the future which is theirs to shape.

That is the vision that drives Blake Naftel to produce Storm Chasing: The Anthology. It is unquestionably the most ambitious cultural and historical project ever to focus on storm chasing. Given the grassroots character of chasing, it is fitting that an effort of such a landmark nature should arise not out of some big commercial production house, but from one of our own. Someone who has storm chasing in his blood and cares about it deeply enough to portray it with honesty; better yet, to let those who have contributed to it do the portraying on their own terms.

There will be no scripting, no manufactured storyline. There will just be stories, told by those who have lived them, beginning with the very origins of storm chasing. There will be storms, of course—unadorned, historical storms as well as contemporary ones; storms you may have chased yourself as well as ones from decades past that you’ve only heard of and wished you could have experienced. There will be insights into the rise and development of tornado research. And there will be much more.

That is, provided Blake can pull off a venture of such magnitude. Those of us who know him think he can. He’s immensely talented as both a chaser and a cameraman with years of experience in TV journalism, he has a penchant for the truth, and he’s motivated by sheer love for his subject. The project is huge in scope and fraught with challenges. But Blake is embracing those challenges, and the result promises to be unlike anything else that has ever been attempted.

And with that, I’ll let Blake tell the rest of the story.

—————

Question: Let’s start with a bit of personal history, the stuff that has forged your path toward this project. What first got you started both as a storm chaser and as a professional cameraman?

Blake NaftelBlake: My interest in severe weather, meteorology, and storm chasing developed early, just before I turned five. I recall being exposed to The Wizard of Oz­­—specifically the tornado sequence—and more importantly, to the NOVA-WGBH documentary “Tornado,” which was first broadcast in November 1985. I was determined to record the program, but my family lacked a VHS VCR at that time. Fortunately, my uncle in Detroit had one, and just after Thanksgiving 1985, I had a copy of the broadcast. The following year, my parents purchased a VCR, and the tape was played extensively—to the point of memorization. The tape found its way to  friends’ homes, where instead of children’s cartoons, the sixty-minute program on tornadoes, storm chasing, and the Barneveld, Wisconsin, tragedy was required viewing.

Picking up on my interest in severe weather, my mom began telling me stories of the tornado she witnessed only a few years prior in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on May 13, 1980. Descriptions of the “twin tails” rotating around one another from her viewpoint at the Civic building in downtown Kalamazoo captivated me. The iconic Kalamazoo Gazette front-page newspaper photograph furthered my fascination, and soon I was checking out every book on tornadoes that I could locate at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Later in the spring of 1986, my mom visited my godmother in Kansas City, Missouri, where, at the time, the National Severe Storms Forecast Center was located. She returned with numerous informative brochures and spotter’s guide material, which I instantly became hooked on. Additionally that year, Mom designed a flip book with illustrations of the progression of the events from May 13, 1980­—sunshine, clouds, greenish-grey skies, lightning, the tornado’s approach, its wrath—concluding with calm, blue, sunny skies. It depicted the day just as it had transpired. I still have this little book, entitled Tornado! (“For Blake, from Mom.”)

Zooming ahead about a decade, I began developing a great interest in cameras—specifically in motion picture cinematography, videography, and 35 mm photography. This was early in the Internet age, and multiple interests of mine were spanning territories that included affordable access to used camera equipment, fee-based and free weather data, and newsgroup networking with seasoned storm chasers and meteorologists across the United States and Canada (WX-TALK, WX-CHASE).

Upon receiving my driver’s license, I began to actually chase storms in 1996­‒97. My chasing at the time was all local, learn-as-you-go, with my knowledge of storm structure and my chase style informed by various storm chase highlight videos which I swapped with Bill Reid, Jim Leonard, Tim Marshall, Warren Faidley, Scott Woelm, Bruce D. Lee, Roger Edwards, and Rich Thompson, among others.

At this point, I also began experimenting with HTML design, early online video, and the development of a regional group of storm spotters and chasers who would gather video of severe weather events in Michigan for the purpose of SKYWARN spotter training. Eventually, after making contact with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, I created a statewide training video for storm spotters, developed though my early attempt at social networking and video sourcing. The now long-defunct website known as MSIT (Michigan Storm Intercept Team) was one of several web pages I created back then.

During the same period, I began an online business buying and selling used motion picture and video camera gear. By doing so, I acquired several different types of cameras, learned about them by trial and error, and frequently focused their lenses on the weather, nature, and people around me. This approach mixed in with a “vintage” look I was going for at the time, and it eventually became a style I utilize to this day.

Then in 1998, the event occurred that would lead me to a future career in photojournalism and TV. On June 11, I was storm chasing across north-central Indiana in Elkhart and Kosciusko counties. It was a very basic chase with paper maps, weather radio, black-and-white television tuned to local media for radar updates, and a general target area based on the parameters. It did not seem like a prime tornado day, although when I recall the dynamics of the system today, it now is very obvious. Long story short: I ended up successfully intercepting and documenting several brief tornadoes which struck south and northeast of Nappanee, Indiana, on SR 19. The chase had at least one nerve-wracking moment when my vehicle’s transmission temporarily gave out in the path of the oncoming tornado, which was less than a mile-and-a-half away. Fortunately the transmission kicked back into gear, allowing me a northern escape.

Once in a safe position, with SVHS camcorder tripoded, I filmed the wall cloud and its attendant weak tornadoes as they continued dipping down to the northeast. The following morning, I saw the amateur video of another tornado near Bristol, Indiana—which occurred prior to what I witnessed—showcased on the morning news on WSBT 22 and WNDU 16. Prompted by my growing interest in broadcast meteorology, TV news, and videography, I called WNDU and spoke to Mike Hoffman, the chief meteorologist, about my own video. He took great interest and asked if they could buy the video for their 11 p.m. newscast on June 12.

After another round of severe weather across the same region that day, I ended up meeting the station’s chief photographer in White Pigeon, Michigan. I gave him my original tape, and later that evening, my video of the Nappanee tornadic event appeared on WNDU’s newscast.

From that point, I began freelancing for local media and soon became  involved with the production side of local television. This eventually grew into my various incarnations as a photojournalist, reporter, weather producer, and technician in the years that followed.

Q: What were those early years like for you? With whom did you chase? How have your experiences and personal interests influenced your videographic approach, which goes beyond chronicling the storms to also documenting the human and historical sides of storm chasing?

B: My early years of storm chasing were very local, restricted to traveling through the western portions of lower Michigan, with occasional trips to northern and central Indiana. Typically, those early trips were either with high school friends or solo, utilizing my 1989 Ford Taurus wagon or a dilapidated 1978 Chevy van my friend Aaron Graham would occasionally drive. Fuel cost was still low, just 79 cents in 1997, so traveling at length to witness severe thunderstorms was not of great significance. Even back then, I was using multiple documentation formats, frequently hauling motion picture film, video, and still photography equipment together into the field just to chronicle everyday Michigan severe thunderstorms. For the more vivid events, I preferred to shoot silent Super 8 color movie film, whereas VHS/SVHS video was a near-constant format that seemed to be always rolling.

I was intrigued by tornadoes on film—namely, the early NOAA-produced films—versus video. The quality, grain, and occasional scratches and dust flecks produced by the projector created a look I was determined to capture. And I did, experimenting with different cameras, formats, and photographic styles. I didn’t confine myself to severe weather or storm chasing only; family events, pets, and the natural surroundings across my hometown area in Texas Township, Michigan, also provided a dynamic environment full of interesting subjects and colors. My subject range continued to expand as I became involved with broadcast photojournalism and developing my own shooting style. Again, it was all by trial and error.

My first chasing exposure to the Plains states was in 1999 and more expansively in 2000. Prior to this point, I had only lived vicariously through the videos of other chasers with whom I had networked through the Internet. Bill Reid, from the Los Angeles region, was one individual who had direct influence not only on my chase documentation style but also on my musical tastes at the time. Over the years, we swapped storm chase highlight videotapes and conversed online, and this eventually led to a distant friendship, which in turn opened the doors to my working for Tempest Tours, with Bill serving as tour director.

In 2001 I was invited to drive and help forecast for Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, run by Todd Thorn. By then I was twenty years old and attending college, and the appeal of having all my lodging and fuel costs paid for seemed too good to pass up. That experience involved a huge tour: three vans full of individuals from across the world as well as three media vehicles from The Weather Network, the Denver Post, and WKOW-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an eye-opener for someone who had primarily chased solo or within small groups, and only locally, never throughout the Plains states. I don’t regret the experience whatsoever, but I chose not to drive for a second tour scheduled directly after the first. Tours can be exhausting, especially those with so many participants!

That year was also the first operational year of Tempest Tours, a company formed by documentary filmmaker Martin Lisius, who was good friends with Bill Reid. I had been in contact with Martin in previous years, ordering his Chasing the Wind, Chasers of Tornado Alley, and StormWatch productions. Out of the blue, Bill contacted me, inquiring about my interest in being a paid driver/guide for Tempest Tours the following year. I was both humbled and floored! I accepted the offer, and in May 2002, I began a five-year stint with Tempest. During that time, I developed many new friendships that would never have been possible without the flexibility that working for a storm chase tour company provided.

Concurrently, I was also working on my geography/GIS degree at Western Michigan University, and I found myself drawn intensely to the mecca of academic severe weather research and meteorology in Norman. The tours, based out of Oklahoma City, provided a wonderful gateway to interacting with other meteorologists and storm chasers who shared similar interests.

Due to the requirements of the broadcast news industry I was now working in, 2008 was my last year working in the storm chase tour circuit. The peak chase month of May is a “sweeps” period in newscasting, and vacation is rarely allowed. So the tours had to take a back seat. But the entire experience was fantastic, one that created friendships which continue to this day and left me with amazing images of visual water vapor, along with an enjoyment, courtesy of Bill Reid, of the musical artists Stan Ridgway and Klaus Nomi. It had been a remarkable, full, and deeply formative passage in my life—and I had it all documented extensively on videotape.

Q: On to your project. Describe Storm Chasing: The Anthology. What is it? How did you think of it? How is it different from other storm chasing videos and documentaries such as Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, and what do you hope it will accomplish? Why is it important—and why now?

B: Storm Chasing: The Anthology developed out of an earlier, untitled project from the 2003‒2004 era which I had shelved. The first concept was a 60-minute documentary on the human element of storm chasing. At that point, I had accumulated hundreds of hours of my own storm chasing endeavors—as well as the people I had been chasing with at the time. Impromptu interviews from the field were gathered, but it was all very “reality TV” to me, and that was a style I was losing interest in.

Jump ahead ten years. Much had changed in the world of storm chasing. Several reality TV shows had transpired, including Storm Chasers, Tornado Road, and smaller spin-offs. I still had all of my original material sitting around in boxes, but had lost interest in doing the earlier concept. Then came the tragedy of May 31, 2013, in El Reno, Oklahoma, which affected the entire storm chasing community and touched me in a very personal way. That event served as the initial trigger for me to revisit my old project and envision a different and expanded approach to it, and it has given me the drive to complete it.

The idea is to present a complete (or as complete as possible) visual history of storm chasing culture. This grows out of the humanity aspect of the original concept, but instead of using a narrator, it will be told through the words, stories, and images of every storm chaser and meteorologist who participates, revealing the full, fascinating decade-by-decade evolution of storm chasing.

To date, the many documentaries and programs about storm chasing have focused on specific events, people, or scientific endeavors, with the 1978 documentary In Search of Tornadoes being the first widely broadcast feature on the subject. In contrast, Storm Chasing: The Anthology is comprehensive. It will serve as a sweeping visual history lesson and an archive of storm chasing culture. Through this project, I plan to preserve the legacy of past generations of the activity, connect that heritage to what chasing is today, and make the results available as an educational resource for present and aspiring meteorologists and severe weather enthusiasts.

In time, I hope to have this project serve as a visual thesis towards the development of a digital, cloud-based, multimedia archive of severe weather. This would be university-based and available as a research and reference resource. That is far down the line, but it was another trigger to doing this project. As individual meteorologists and storm chasers pass on, their collections of imagery and work run the risk of vanishing; the archive would answer that concern. Obviously, you cannot preserve everything, nor is that my intention. One can, however, preserve vast amounts of a subject, and I feel that now is the time to make a push toward that end.

Q: Who is Storm Chasing: The Anthology for? Primarily storm chasers? Or do you hope to reach a broader audience? How will this anthology benefit viewers?

B: This production is being created for anyone with an interest in history, severe weather research, meteorology, and the activity of storm chasing. Granted, the core audience is those who are, or have been, directly involved in storm chasing. The benefit to viewers will be a broad education on all aspects of storm chasing as an activity.

Initially, a condensed premiere version will be released, followed by a six-part anthology. The latter obviously may take far more work than I had initially thought, and at the moment, this is a completely independent effort—so I ask everyone to please bear with me. In terms of a broader audience, upon completion, I wish to make the anthology available to libraries and academic institutions. In time, I would love to present this program on a broadcast/web streaming platform—specifically, PBS. The film festival circuit will also be a part of the exposure to other individuals who would not normally have a direct interest in this subject. As for making the anthology available for individual purchase, that’s in the plans, but I’ll first need to take care of the necessary copyright and licensing requirements.

Q: This is obviously a huge undertaking, spanning roughly sixty years of storm chasing history. Given your talents, experience, and relationships with storm chasers from veterans to talented younger chasers, you seem uniquely qualified to make it happen. What have you already done, what do you still need to do, and how long do you think it will take?

B: So much has been accomplished already! A tremendous amount of video, film, and other material has been gathered over the past decade. But much remains to be done. The core of the project involves my completing fifty-plus interviews of individual storm chasers and meteorologists across thirty-one states and Ontario, Canada. The Kickstarter campaign is intended to defray my travel expenses. With that campaign now in its final week, concluding on July 25, I am still seeking additional funds to offset the combined 7 to 10 percent fee that Amazon and Kickstarter will take from the funding pool.

My next task is acquiring a vehicle for travel. I share a vehicle presently and will likely be renting one for the trip. I’m currently approaching local car dealerships and national rental vehicle agencies about sponsoring a car. One of these options will be secured in the next month.

I am also still deciding what format to shoot the interviews on. Presently I have the offer of older, loaned (fee-free) gear from friends, and that will likely be the route I take.

Once the interviews are complete, editing will be the monumental task on my mind, along with production design. I am confident that a condensed premiere version would be ready by the summer of 2015. And I earnestly hope to have the six-part anthology completed by October or November 2015 and available either as BluRay/DVD or as a digital download. There is the whole aspect of meeting the deadlines promised to backers of this project—so 2015 will be a very busy year for post-production!

I’m always eager for assistance and will likely be inquiring with local or regional production firms and/or academic institutions in order to complete the project in a timely manner.

Another big reality is securing an income—or multiple-income sources—locally or regionally while working on the post production phase of this project. Working independently, I’m taking a great risk, and I find that both exciting and unnerving. I’m leaving my full-time job at WWMT on August 22 to set out for the month or so it will take me to complete the interviews, and I have nothing official lined up upon my return. While I have requested an unpaid extended leave from the station, it is only a possible consideration. Moreover, the focus required for the editing phase of this project is immense, so if I could secure local part-time or freelance employment within the Grand Rapids area, that would work quite well. Although I cannot say what the future holds, doors continue to open in new directions for me each step of the way with this project, and I have faith that everything will work out.

Upon my return, hours upon hours of video will be ingested and logged. Not only so, but countless hours of B-roll video material dating back to David Hoadley’s earliest storm chasing movies will also need to be digitally archived. All the multimedia material I’ll be dealing with comprises well over 1,000 hours! Frankly, thinking about how to bring all of that together boggles my mind at the moment. This is all a real-time process, and that is one reason why I am choosing to release this as a six-part anthology.

I may need to seek out a production team to assist in the design and distribution of this project somewhere down the line. So let me reemphasize that while Storm Chasing: The Anthology is currently an independent effort, I am open to assistance from the outside, including collaboration with other filmmakers and producers.

Q: Who are some of your supporters? Do you have a projected release date?

B: The supporters of this project are far too numerous to list here. I am extremely thankful to everyone who has pitched in to help make this project move from a vision to a reality. The projected release of the premiere version is in the early fall of 2015. I hope to feature it in the Oklahoma City/Norman, Oklahoma region, potentially coordinating with the AMS or NWA conferences between September and October. No premiere location is official yet; that too remains on my vast to-do list.

As for the six-part anthology disc/digital download version, as I mentioned earlier, I plan to make it available by November 2015, barring any snags along the way.

Q: What are your needs? How can people help?

B: Full project details and proposed budget can be located via: http://stormchasinghistory.net. The ongoing Kickstarter campaign runs until July 25 at 11:10 a.m. ET.* While the $7,000 funding goal was met in twelve days, additional backing will only make this project better! Please continue spreading the word about this project through social media. And if you love a mix of history, storm chasing, and storytelling, then consider adding your financial support to create this anthology series. Any amount, large or small, makes a difference and is greatly appreciated.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say, Blake?

B: Thank you to everyone who has supported the development of Storm Chasing: The Anthology! This production would not be a reality without the collaboration, belief, and interest of others! I am eagerly looking forward to getting on the road with this project, and I will be providing field updates of my travels, once they commence, via Facebook, Twitter, and the stormchasinghistory.net homepage.

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* Blake’s Kickstarter campaign concluded at the time stated and was highly successful. He raised $10,200, well beyond his goal. Considering that the project will involve far more than travel expenses, those who contributed can consider their generosity well-placed.

How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps” now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I’m not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I’ve even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on “Giant Steps” titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key.

In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind “Giant Steps” is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn’t the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren’t the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you’ll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle.

The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I’m supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you’ll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them.

One-bar pattern:

002

 

 

One-bar pattern through the cycle:
003

 

 

Two-bar lick:
004

 

 

Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle:
GS 1-Bar Pattern

 

 

 

And now, here is the video. It’s obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven’t figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I’m signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn’t aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I’m going to do a redo just for that? It’s part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too.

Go ahead and chuckle. But if you’re a jazz improviser who’s tackling “Giant Steps,” then I think you’ll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.

 

Book Review: The Scale Omnibus by Francesco Balena

Francesco Balena operates the website Saxopedia, a tremendous resource for saxophonists and jazz musicians of every stripe. If you play the sax—or, for that matter, any instrument—and you are not familiar with Franco’s site, then I highly recommend that once you have finished reading this post, you go directly to Saxopedia and acquaint yourself with it. The exhaustive collection of links to solo transcriptions alone is enough to place Saxopedia in the upper echelon of saxophone resources. But there’s much more besides, and that now includes Francesco’s new masterpiece, The Scale Omnibus: 392 Scales for Instrumentalists, Composers, Vocalists, and Improvisers. The amount of material covered in this 429-page, downloadable book is simply staggering. And it’s free.

Did you get that? Free. In the author’s words, “The primary objective of this book is making in-depth knowledge about scales available to the largest number of people as possible. For this reason The Scale Omnibus is free. Free as a free lunch. No strings attached.” There are a few commonsense stipulations in the use of the material, but the bottom line is that Francesco, in keeping with the spirit of Saxopedia, has created what has got to be the most comprehensive repository of scales ever assembled, and now he is making it available to musicians at no cost whatsoever.

It’s a fantastic accomplishment on Francesco’s part, the fruit of considerable time, research, insight, and plain, solid labor; and it is an equally remarkable gift to jazz musicians in search of fresh ideas for improvisation.

Organization

The Scale Omnibus is well-organized and easy to use. Following a thoughtfully written, insightful introduction, the book plunges directly into the material, beginning with the common major and minor scales and their modes and then progressing, per the table of contents, through

  • Symmetrical Scales
  • Jazz Scales
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Modal Scales
  • European Scales
  • Asian Scales
  • Indian Scales
  • Miscellaneous Scales

Every scale is allotted its own separate, full page. Scales are presented in ascending form in all twelve keys—with the exception, for obvious reasons, of the chromatic scale—and in descending form as well for a few of the Indian ragas whose ascending and descending forms differ. Each scale is preceded by brief, helpful notes that cover its alternate names, modes, construction, harmonic applications (i.e., which chords it works well with), and in some cases, its country of origin.

Following the presentation of the scales themselves, the book includes four appendices that provide a scale index and scales by name, interval, and chord. The last appendix, Scales by Chord, strikes me as particularly useful, providing a quick match-up of chords with scale options. Many of the options will be familiar to experienced improvisers, but there are surprises. For instance, until a short while ago, I had no idea that the Romanian scale could be used with a minor seventh chord. (For that matter, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Romanian scale.) This particular appendix is by no means exhaustive, given the vast array of possibilities covered by the book, and Franco might consider expanding the list of scale choices in a future edition. However, the amount of time required to do so would no doubt be considerable, and the appendix as it stands is an eminently useful tool, furnishing a greater selection than similar lists such as Jamey Aebersold’s chord/scale syllabus.

About the Scales

The Scales Omnibus gives all scales, both the everyday and the exotic, equal coverage. But while it begins with the major and minor scales all Westerners relate to, whether trained musicians or everyday listeners, it goes far beyond those scales into territory most of us aren’t familiar with. For instance, turning to the first page of the section on Asian scales, I come across something called the Honkoshi scale, which, I am informed, originated in Japan; generates, as its modes, the Raga Hamsa Vinodini, the Raga Manavi, and the Insen scale; and works well with a half-diminished chord. Following it is the Ichikotsucho scale, also known as—are you ready?—the Major-Lydian Mixed, Gregorian 5, Genus Diatonicum Veterum Correctum, Kubilai, Raga Bihag, Raga Gaud Sarang, Raga Hamir Kalyani, Raga Kedar, Raga Yaman Kalyan, and Raga Chayanat. Stick that in your horn and play it (preferably over a Cmaj7 or Cma7#11).

Does this book cover every possible scale under the sun? No. Francesco has screened out scales of fewer than five notes; such scales exist, but when tones become so sparse, the use of the term scale becomes questionable. Also, significantly, the book covers only scales that fit easily within the twelve-tone, well-tempered system. Francesco writes, “Microtonal scales, scales that use just temperament, and scales that use equal temperament obtained by dividing the octave in a different number of intervals—as is the case of some Arabian scales—are not included.”

In Summary

A book so vast in its scope as this can only provide the basic scales and insights on their use. From there, it’s up to you to determine which scales interest you most and develop exercises that will help you master them. No way will you or anyone ever internalize all of them. But even one new scale is a tremendous acquisition for the improvising musician, and to that end, The Scale Omnibus is a treasure trove of possibilities. Franceso could easily ask $25.00 or more for this volume; instead, he’s offering it for free, and in so doing, he has added even more value to an already immensely valuable website for jazz instrumentalists, particularly saxophonists.

A work of such excellence and heart as Francesco’s book, given so generously to others, deserves support, and it is in that spirit that I have written this unpaid and unsolicited review.

Bravissimo, Francesco! You’ve given a gift to musicians everywhere. Thank you.

Rhythm Changes: An Etude to Build Jazz Technique

rhythm changes, jazz improvisation, jazz etude 001Here’s a little bop-style etude I created to help build your chops for rhythm changes. No surprises here; I wasn’t striving for cutting-edge ideas but for simple building blocks of jazz vocabulary. Me being an alto sax guy, I’ve written the material in the key of G, which is the alto transposition for the standard “Rhythm” key of Bb. Tenor players, flute players, and so on–sorry for the inconvenience, but you know how to transpose, right? Or just play it as written and hone your facility with the key of G. Click on the image to enlarge it and then have at it. And have fun!

I’ve written in the past about my predilection for rhythm changes as a means of developing a fundamental jazz vocabulary. In their essence, the changes can be construed as simply a succession of turnarounds with a bridge based on the cycle of dominants. You can get as fancy with that as you want to, but the basics are just as simple as the word basic implies.

For more on rhythm changes, click here. I also encourage you to read the point-counterpoint between Kurt Ellenberger and me which evolved out of that post. Whether you love rhythm changes or, like Kurt, hate them, you’ll find food for thought.

If you enjoyed this post, click here for plenty more articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions. Also, a quick plug for my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. If you’d like a practical, hands-on practice companion to help you master “Giant Steps,” well…that’s why I wrote it.