Good-Bye, Phil Woods: In Honor of an Alto Sax Legend

When I got the news last night that Phil Woods had died the day before, on September 29, 2015, I was stunned. Not Phil Woods! Not my main man, my hero on the alto sax whom, among the luminaries of the instrument, including even Bird and Cannonball, I have admired and learned from the most. Not Phil.

But of course, why not? We all go at some point, and Phil was eighty-three and in poor health. He had lived a full life; he had seen a huge slice of jazz history and carved his own considerable niche in that history; he had accomplished things that most musicians only dream of; and in the process, he left a legacy of music richer than the mines of Moria.

I first heard of Phil back in my early twenties in music school. I heard him described as a “lyrical” player, and while I didn’t know what the word meant, I determined to find out. So I purchased an album of Phil’s titled I Remember, and “lyrical” acquired meaning through melody and timbre. Here was this beautiful tone, so full of warmth and joy and body, married to an incredible sense of swing. And here was a way with a ballad that just . . . well, I listened to the tune “Paul” over and over and over, mesmerized. The way Phil played it—so beautifully, so sensitively, so full of emotion—moved me to tears. I mean that most truly. Phil Woods could render a ballad with such sublimity and freshness and, above all, sincerity, that I would quite literally weep. His solo on Michelle Legrand’s “The Summer Knows” took my breath away the first time I heard it, and it still does. Lyrical? The word doesn’t begin to describe what Phil Woods could do with an alto sax.

But of course, ballads were just a part of what Phil played with excellence. He could cut through the most harmonically complex changes—bop tunes such as “Hallucinations”—at frantic tempos with an ease and inventiveness that left other players, even the most accomplished, in the dust. And you always knew it was Phil playing. There was no mistaking that sound and that approach.

I heard Phil play live three times. My most memorable was with my brother Pat, who, when I visited him years ago in Port Townsend, Washington, had made reservations for dinner at Jazz Alley in Seattle. There I sat, dining on steak while Phil and his combo blew incredible sounds from the stage just twenty feet from our table. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Now Phil is gone. The man and the horn that blazed their long, meteoric trail across the jazz firmament have flamed out at last. But like Bird, whom he so deeply admired, Phil lit a torch whose brightness burns in the horns of countless altoists worldwide. Phil Woods has many children. I am proud to be one of them.

Thank you, Phil. You gave this world much beauty, and you showed the way beyond Bird for alto players like me. Now you reside among the legends. You will be missed. And the music you made ensures that you will never, ever be forgotten.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: Part 2

Having dispensed with my rambling prelude, in part 1 of this article, to the question “What is jazz?” let’s get to the question itself.

What is jazz?

The answer used to be fairly simple, involving such concepts as syncopation, swing, improvisation, and African-American roots. The formats in which those elements played out were fairly straightforward. There was Dixieland. There was swing. There was big band. There was bebop.

But wait . . . bebop? In its day, there were those who maintained that bebop wasn’t jazz; it was cacophony, confusion, a bunch of chromatic scales played lightning fast and signifying nothing. “Let them beat their brains out till their flatted fifths are gone, then they’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest,” taunted Louis Armstrong in “The Boppenpoof Song,” but his abilities as a prophet didn’t match his brilliance as a trumpet player. Today no one would seriously contest the prodigious contribution of bop to the evolution of jazz.

Then along came Coltrane. Repeat the scenario. A lot of jazz buffs couldn’t stand him. Sheets of sound? Endless modal droning? That ain’t jazz, or so said the purists—then. Today it’s a different story; Trane has a lot of children and grandchildren. The thing called jazz broadened, embraced another icon, and forged ahead. Then came fusion, and more cries of protest. So it went, and so it has gone, and so it goes. Cool jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, smooth jazz, punk jazz . . . from Miles to Trane to Ornette to Zorn and beyond, the list goes on, and after a while, I feel bewildered and my head hurts. Look, I just like good music, and I like improvisation, and I admire combinations of artistry and skill at a high level, and it gets to where I honestly don’t care all that much about categorizing it. This article can’t begin to cover all the complexities of a subject that so many, many writers have already addressed, and will continue to address, in far greater depth.

So in the remainder of this post, I want to share what a few others, both musicians and non-musicians, have to say about the nature of jazz. Nothing definitive, just personal, insightful, and even humorous.

Responses to the Facebook Survey

The first to respond to my question “What is jazz?” was keyboard man Bob Van Stee: “Good question. Allegedly, Louis Armstrong was asked, and his response was, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

My good friend Ed Englerth wrote, “’Jazz is restless.’ [It can be played on] any instrument. I prefer jazz that has improvisational elements, but [it] can be written out as well.”

Camera artist Myrna Jacobs doesn’t play an instrument, and her husband, Dan, is a superb jazz trumpeter and flutist. Myrna shared in-depth:

I think a lot about jazz, and to some extent why it isn’t popular music (for the most part). But what I’ve decided is that what often passes for jazz today isn’t really jazz. It lacks life and is static, trapped in some other time, much like classical music. Creating in the moment, being true to your own emotions and being in touch with the time and place you live. A willingness to get emotional with the music is so vital. I don’t play jazz. I listen to it and, honestly, feel that much of what is played is not good.. simply copies or ideas of what it should be, rather than it just being musicians who love playing, love creating, know how to listen and being willing to put themselves out there emotionally through their notes and spaces. Great jazz can take you someplace… to another world. It’s not even about the right chords (though it plays a part and doesn’t ‘feel right’ if the player doesn’t know them in his gut). I am a huge fan of jazz music that doesn’t isolate soloists . .. but rather, all the players in the band are part of the solo in some way. They are all listening and knowing when to contribute, like a conversation. Most of all I guess that jazz at it very ultimate is a conversation…. sometimes a soloist has a lot to say, like a monologue . .. but like, in conversation, the others come in and ‘nod’, accent, repeat parts of what was said.. take off on it.. use the idea, the concept (musically). It’s not just a speech… but a conversation. I love Dixieland for the beat.. for the interplay of instruments. I love big band when it’s exciting and the power that can be generated by that many instruments is used effectively… and when it is written so that it is not just one solo after another with no relationship to each other in any way. I love a duo… of whatever instruments are used… when they are playing together.. creating together.. moving the conversation forward Sorry… I could go on and on. I have thought about this a LOT and talked about it a lot, trying to figure out why so many people do not like jazz.

Trombonist Jason Lester offered the following thoughts:

Jazz is typically defined by having extended improvisation relative to predefined melodic material: it is further distinguished from the stuff of “jam bands” and blues by harmonic content– ii V I’s, extended chords, elaborate harmonic substitution. Instrumentation is not a factor, as Bela Fleck and many other groups have demonstrated. The boundaries of jazz are (and always have been) designed to be stretched and blurred: third stream, fusion, acid, etc have allowed players to stretch and blend. This symbiosis brings new life to both jazz and to the genre it hybridizes with– some of the best Rock sax solos were dealt down by cats like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins; bringing in guitarists like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern gave Miles an entirely new sound. But improvisation and harmonic content are still the signature elements.

My response to Jason:

Given the interplay of other genres with jazz, the lines get fuzzy, don’t they. Improvisation, for instance, has long been a hallmark of rock as well as jazz (though jazz came first). Yet there’s an obvious difference between the extended improvisations of David Gilmour in Pink Floyd and John Coltrane in his classic quartet; both are masterful soloists in phenomenal groups, yet there’s no question that Floyd is rock and Trane is jazz. However, there does come a point in modern music where it’s hard to say whether you’ve got fish or fowl. You’ve mentioned harmonic complexity, and that one hits the nail on the head for me. Even the supposedly static harmony of modalism in jazz involves a complex harmonic approach not just for the soloist but also, significantly, for the rhythm section, and in particular for the chording instruments (e.g., keyboard, guitar). Once you cross over beyond swing feel into rock and Latin rhythms, it may be the harmony that’s the determinant.

Jason again: “The lines really blur when you listen to Steely Dan, James Brown, Frank Zappa, or Medeski, Martin& Wood!”

Finally, Bob Van Stee alerted me to the following video clip in which Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme answer the question “What is jazz?” in their own inimitable way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off this post.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook:

“What is jazz?”

Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not.

Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they’d opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches.

At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!”

In Light of Today

Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all.

Though, is that really the case?

I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no.

It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It’s not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days.

You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you.

Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not?

The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that’s not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now “What is jazz?” can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion.

In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry “What is jazz?” as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter.

(To be continued.)

Storms and Jazz: A Late Summer Update for 2015

A few months have elapsed since my last post, which covered the Great Galesburg Earthquake.* I’ve been quite busy with book editing and copywriting and with a move in June from Caledonia to Hastings. So storm chasing this year has once again been mostly theoretical. If there’s anything good about that, it’s that missing out on yet another chase season hasn’t bothered me as much this year as it has in the past. There’s a lot to be said for loving what one does but not being owned by it. That’s not to say, though, that there weren’t times this spring when memories of past chases washed over me, and thoughts of towers punching up into the troposphere, of gorgeous storm structure, and of the smell and feel of Gulf-moistened inflow whisking across the prairie grasses toward an updraft base, made me wish like anything that I was out on the Plains once again.

Well, one takes life as it comes, and part of its lesson is to look for and appreciate the good one has rather than bemoan the good one is missing. Lack of chasing has been compensated, at least somewhat, by an increase in musical opportunities. And at this time in my life, I think it is important that I take those opportunities, which are rewarding aesthetically and which augment my finances and pave the way to more gigs, more musical involvements, and a broader future doing the other thing besides storm chasing that I love.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that I’ve died to chasing. That’s not likely to happen; once chasing is in your blood, it becomes a part of you, and it has been in my blood for many years. No, it’s simply to recognize times and seasons, and to refuse to be shaped by the obsessiveness that is a very real aspect of storm chasing culture. I’m too old not to know better by now, and I’d be a fool not to live by the wisdom I’ve gained. One of what Paul the apostle called the “fruits of the Spirit” is self-control. Restraint. The ability to judiciously govern one’s impulses—not squelching them, but rather, choosing not to let them run roughshod over other very important things in life.

With that little preamble . . . severe storms are in the forecast for later today, and playing my saxophone has been very much in the foreground of my life lately, and this post will cover a little bit about both storms and jazz.

Weatherly Speaking

Yesterday evening I gave a presentation on storm chasing at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland, Michigan. It was a great time with a small but engaged audience of roughly twenty people. My presentation runs around an hour-and-a-half, including time for questions at the end. However, I encourage my listeners to ask questions during the presentation as well, as I think an interactive format makes things more interesting and develops a connection with my audience.

This presentation was my second at this library and my fourth in all, and in my opinion, it was my best. With each one, I feel more familiar with my material and more at ease and spontaneous as a public speaker. Once I share the ten-minute clip of my March 2, 2012, chase of the Henryville, Indiana, tornado, I’ve got a captive crowd, and I can then move on to basic storm forecasting, supercell structure, and tornado safety, with a strong emphasis on safety. In the process, I make a point of advocating for NWS forecasters, explaining why weather professionals in Michigan have a particularly tough job protecting the public; and of debunking the largely mythical mantra of “We had no warning,” strongly insisting that the responsibility for safety rests in people’s own hands.

My sister, Diane, came with me and in fact did the driving, and it was a blessing to spend time with her. She’s a busy gal these days, and I’m a busy guy, and we just don’t get to spend much quality time together. So the chance to get away with her for an afternoon and evening was a gift. Plus, now she knows what my presentation is like, and how it can be adapted if the school where she teaches, Forest Hills Northern, wants to bring me in sometime.

All in all, yesterday went beautifully. And now today the potential exists for severe storms this afternoon and evening, contingent upon sufficient CAPE and adequate shear. The SPC even indicates a 2 percent tornado risk, but that’s Michigan for you—just enough to tease, and maybe there’ll be a spinup or two on the east side of the state.

As I write, noon is at hand, a brisk southerly surface wind is playing through the tree branches in the backyard, and breaks in the clouds and a dry slot moving in from the west suggest a buildup in instability. Time will tell, but I anticipate some kind of local chase and am ready to roll.


These past few weeks have been filled with more music than I’ve seen in I don’t know when. I played my first gig as a strolling saxophonist for the VIP pre-grand opening of Tanger Outlets here in Grand Rapids. That was fun, and a nice piece of change, and it was all the more enjoyable thanks to a chance to sit in with Mark Kahny and Bobby Thompson, who were performing onstage at a different location in the outdoor mall.

Then two days later came the first of two Saturday evening gigs with My Thin Place, a collective led by bassist Dave DeVos and featuring Mike Dodge on guitar, Dave Martin on vibraphone, and Ric Troll and Fritz von Valtier alternating in the drum chair. The venue for both dates was the outdoor patio at Sandy Point Beach House, a restaurant right by the lakeshore between Grand Haven and Holland. It’s as idyllic a setting as you can imagine for a jazz gig, and the music this combo performs—a mix of ECM-style tunes, original compositions, and American songbook charts—was the perfect complement to outdoor dining.

After the gig at Tanger Outlets, Mark Kahny contacted me about joining him and Bobby for a gig at the What Not Inn in Fennville. I was delighted! These guys are superb, not only musically but also as entertainers who know how to engage their audience, and we gelled beautifully in that small but popular setting. The result was musical magic. Guys, if you read this, please bring me aboard again real soon. I love making music with you!

Now let’s talk about Big Band Nouveau. Whew! Three major gigs in a week in Grand Rapids, starting with the West Michigan Jazz Society’s Monday evening Jazz in the Park concert at Ah-Nab-a-Wen Park on the riverside; then Thursday night at Bobarino’s at The B.O.B., with a wonderfully supportive audience; and concluding with a Sunday afternoon encore performance at the GRand Jazz Fest on the Rosa Parks Circle stage. What can I say about this band? The charts are contemporary, challenging, and tasty, giving soloists plenty of room to stretch; and the musicians are outstanding—a bevy of strong soloists with individual voices. No wonder this band gets standing ovations! Its star is rapidly—and deservedly—rising, and I am privileged to be a part of it.

To top it all off, later Sunday afternoon I attended Mark Kahny’s annual music bash at his house in northeast Grand Rapids. This was my first time there, and I had an absolute blast. Mark clearly designed his outdoor deck with the idea that it would serve as a stage for performances, and I joined him and Bobby to provide music for a legion of Mark’s fans. He’s been doing music for a long time, and people love him because he loves them. The party is for them, and they come, and it’s a beautiful thing. My old friend Freddy DeGennaro was also there with his guitar, as were several vocalists, and the music just flowed. I left Sunday evening feeling both tired and elated, appropriately depleted yet also energized. It was a great time, and an inspiring ending to a hot, humid, sweaty, and totally fantastic August day.

Speaking of which, another such high-humidity August afternoon is unfolding, and it’s time for me to unfold with it. Dewpoints are ranging from 68 to 72 degrees and the first line of storms has organized east of I-69/US 27. I bid you sayonara, dear reader. I’ve got a shower to take, a book to edit, and, in a few hours, storms to enjoy.


* Update: reports of prehistoric reptiles released from magma-spewing fissures remain unverified and should be viewed as suspect.

When the Apartment Shakes: The May 2, 2015, Michigan Earthquake

About twenty minutes after noon yesterday, as I was sitting in my couch, unperturbed as a turtle on tranquilizers, suddenly my apartment began to shake and rattle, and an indescribable sound filled my ears. My first thought was “What the . . . ? What the devil is my downstairs neighbor doing?” If he was rearranging furniture, then he was doing it with an earthmover.

The shaking continued for ten seconds, maybe fifteen. Then it quit, just like that.

It took me a few seconds to grasp the obvious: I think we’ve just had an earthquake.

That’s what it was: a 4.2-magnitude earthquake centered 3.5 miles below the earth’s surface about forty miles south of me near Galesburg, Michigan. If a 4.2 quake doesn’t sound impressive to those of you on the West Coast, it nevertheless was enough to generate interest around these parts. I myself was mildly surprised, or so I surmised from the fact that my eyeballs had protruded three inches from their sockets and required repositioning.

Somewhere in my reading on the event yesterday (I can’t relocate the source), I learned that, due to geological differences between the West Coast and the Midwest, quakes in this region tend to be shallower, but the energy they expend is often felt more intensely across a larger area. Yesterday’s quake might have rattled a few coffee cups in San Francisco, but here in West Michigan, it actually caused isolated instances of light structural damage: fractures in the outer walls of a few buildings, cracks in an asphalt parking lot, and fissures in the earth spewing magma as prehistoric reptiles emerged from subterranean caverns.*

Michigan is hardly the nation’s earthquake capitol. This isn’t a region thick with active faults. Still, we do get the very occasional rumble. The largest in Lower Michigan’s recent history was a 4.6-magnitude quake that occurred on August 10, 1947. Rated VI on the Modified Mercali Intensity scale (MMI), that one, also centered in roughly the same area as yesterday’s, brought down a few chimneys and did some other notable damage. By comparison, yesterday’s quake merited a V on the scale. The MMI scale describes a V thus: “Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.”

Yeah, that sounds about right. People felt this quake all across Lower Michigan, from Holland to Grand Rapids to Saginaw, and as far west as Chicago and as far east as northern Ohio. In other words, it was no small deal. Amazingly, it still escaped some people’s notice. Not mine, though. I’ve walked through a number of smaller quakes without ever knowing about them till later in the news, when I’d hear reports of so-and-so noticing the china rattling in their cabinet. I always felt a bit disappointed, robbed of an experience through failure to have a china cabinet on hand when I needed one. But as of yesterday, I can finally say that I’ve lived through an earthquake—the Great Galesburg Earthquake of 2015. “Great” is of course a relative term. If you live near the San Andreas Fault, yesterday’s episode would have seemed like a gnat fart. But it was pretty great for West Michigan. It caused no real harm, but it left plenty to talk about and a cool memory.

* Parts of this statement may require verification.


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.


* 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.


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.


* 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.



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.