My New Phil Barone Soprano Saxophone: Wow!

I. LOVE. My new Phil Barone soprano saxophone!

I mean, I seriously dig this horn.

When I sold my vintage Yamaha YSS 62 “Purple Label” a couple years ago, I went into a period of minor mourning. But the tax man required money, and for as long as I had owned the horn–since the mid 1980s–I hadn’t played it much. Practicality won out; the sax went on eBay and got snapped up.

I doubted I’d ever be able to afford another soprano sax of its quality, even used.

The loss became more apparent as the band I play in, My Thin Place (MTP), has prioritized ECM-style tunes that call for the soprano sound. I’m primarily an alto man, and MTP plays plenty of tunes for which alto is the right voice. But when it comes to our originals and numbers like Oregon’s “1,000 Kilometers” and John Abercrombie’s “Timeless,” the soprano is the better fit–in some cases, the only fit. So now what?

Enter–and huge thanks to–my friend and fellow saxophonist Michael Doyle (Evidence; Big Band Nouveau). Recognizing my need to supply the appropriate voice for MTP, he volunteered his Mark VI. “Hang onto it,” he told me. “Just get it to me when I need it.” That was way beyond gracious of Mike, and it was our arrangement for a year or more.

But realistically, I needed a horn of my own. I just didn’t have the money. Self-employment as an editor and writer is a roller coaster, and when the checks come in, they’re usually spoken for. When I felt I could responsibly purchase another horn, I would do so. But that time wasn’t now, and I didn’t know when it would be.

A NAMELESS BENEFACTOR AND A GENEROUS GIFT

Then one evening, at my monthly Sandy Point Beach House gig with MTP, my friend Dave DeVos, the bassist and band leader, told me, “Someone wants to buy you a soprano saxophone. They prefer to remain unknown. How much would a new horn cost?”

Well, that was a question I hadn’t considered lately.

A nameless benefactor wanted to buy me a horn? Really?

Yes, said Dave. West Michigan has its share of arts patrons, and he had approached one of them on my behalf. So, how much?

Whoever it was that was being so gracious toward me, I didn’t want to overreach on his or her generosity. I named an amount: two thousand dollars–hesitantly, because it seemed like an awful lot of money. It was an awful lot of money. But in the world of saxophones, I believed it was practical yet conservative. Then I started shopping online.

A QUEST FOR VALUE

Ouch! Man, those little stinkers are pricey! Had I underestimated? True, you can buy a Chinese horn for a couple hundred bucks, but do you really want to hang your sound on such an instrument, particularly when it’s going to play a defining role in the band?

Two grand, on the other hand, ought to buy me something decent. Maybe not in the same league as the vintage Yamaha I had parted with, but certainly a good horn of a quality one could count on. I just needed to ask the Lord to guide me to it, and I needed to do my homework.

So I dug more deeply. And I began to read glowing accounts of Phil Barone saxophones. Phil, a professional saxophonist in New York, aims to provide pro-quality saxophones at an affordable price for guys like me who can’t afford to slap down $4,000 or more for a new Yamaha, Selmer, Cannonball, or Yanigasawa. By skipping the retailers and selling direct to consumer, Phil is able to offer his saxophones at substantial savings. His website says, “When you order a Phil Barone saxophone, you’re ordering direct from the maker, who doesn’t spend a lot of money or time on expensive ad campaigns or marketing. Great reviews and word of mouth works just fine for Phil Barone. The result is a professional quality saxophone priced for the student; an instrument that doesn’t just rival the sound of more expensive brands but out-plays them time and time again.”

All fine and well–but really? Were the horns as good as all that?

Based on what I read on Sax on the Web and elsewhere, player after player seemed to think so. The reviews weren’t merely positive–they were consistently rave. Saxophonists were loving these horns, preferring them even over their Yamahas and Selmers. I checked out some YouTube demonstrations and was impressed. The intonation–an obvious concern with soprano saxophones–was good, and the sound seemed clear and consistent.

Given a reasonable trial period, what did I have to lose? I ordered a nickel-plated model and eagerly awaited its arrival.

A DELIGHT TO LOOK AT, A JOY TO PLAY

I was in the throes of a terrible cold when the saxophone arrived, so I wasn’t in shape to take it for a test flight immediately. I was barely up to feeling excited–but excited I was, nevertheless. I unboxed the new arrival and, with some trepidation about what I would find, opened the sturdy black hardshell case.

The horn was gorgeous.

It was also well packaged, with pads and keys clamped snugly and all separate pieces wrapped in plastic. Those included, besides the main saxophone body, both a curved and a straight neck, a neckstrap, my choice of one of Phil’s $200 mouthpieces (included in the purchase price), and a basic ligature.

Removing the plastic, I inspected the instrument visually. The finish was flawless–not a rough patch or defect anywhere that I could see. Just sumptuous gold engraving against a smooth, silvery dark nickel lacquer on a sturdily built instrument. My gosh. If this horn’s sound and performance matched its appearance, then I had just gotten a very sweet deal indeed. I’d have to wait to find out, because physically I just wasn’t up to playing a wind instrument. But so far, visually, this soprano had just taken my breath away.

By the next afternoon I had crossed the hump with the cold, and I could wait no longer. I had to know. Grabbing the new soprano, I headed out to Charlton Park east of town–a riverside location where I love to practice–and I assembled the horn and blew my first notes.

Forty-five minutes later I was on the phone with Phil Barone. I wanted to tell him personally how delighted I was and thank him for making such a marvelous instrument accessible to me.

FOUR MONTHS LATER

That was back in late April. It is now mid August. Having had some time to familiarize myself with this saxophone, I can tell you that I no longer feel the loss of my vintage YSS 62. That was a wonderful soprano saxophone, but this new horn surpasses it. It is everything its maker claims. Its lovely tone is consistent throughout the range of the instrument; it is solidly built, with intuitive ergonomics that allow my fingers to fall naturally in place; it is responsive, mechanically deft, and has excellent intonation. It most certainly plays as beautifully as it looks–and that is saying a mouthful. I am proud to own this horn and very grateful to the person who saw fit to bless me with it.

The new Barone is inspiring me to do something I never did with my old Yamaha: spend serious time practicing the soprano sax, learning its nuances and getting a feel for my sound on it. I’ve come to appreciate how very different in temperament it is from my alto saxophone. My Conn 6M alto is a golden-toned, swashbuckling, exuberant instrument that will take as much air as I can give it, and it resonates in my hands like a living thing. This soprano is a lady with a soft, pretty voice, and she’s at her best when I treat her as such.

Due to its smaller size, the soprano is a more temperamental instrument than the alto and tenor saxophones, and intonation can go out of whack in a hurry. Using new, crisp reeds makes a world of difference for playing in tune, and getting the right mouthpiece/reed setup is crucial. The Barone 7* vintage mouthpiece that came with the horn proved to be too ambitious for me. That was my fault. Barone mouthpieces receive stellar reviews, and this one is what I ordered. But in my ignorance about the soprano, I overestimated what I needed; a smaller tip opening would have served me better. I have yet to try using a softer reed–a #2, possibly even a #1 1/2. I’m not a fan of soft reeds, but I’m still in the learning curve with the new soprano and am game to try different options.

My present mouthpiece/reed setup pairs a considerably more moderate Yamaha 4C mouthpiece with a Rico Royal #3 reed. The sound I get with this combination is clear and consistent, and the intonation is great throughout the range of the horn. Still, it will take some time before I feel confident about what setup I want to settle into. The close tip opening of the 4C is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wide-open Barone 7*, and I’d like to be able to move a little more air. A half-size stronger reed might be the solution. As well, given the affordability of Yamaha mouthpieces–around thirty bucks a pop–I plan to pick up a 5C and see how it performs. I’ll also replace the cheap ligature with something more refined. And at some point, I’ll make a pilgrimage to one of the saxophone shops in Detroit or Chicago and spend an afternoon trying out pieces. For now, though, the 4C is working well, wonderfully so for the price.

My old Yamaha was a solid-body straight soprano. The new two-piece Barone gives me the option of using either a straight or a curved neck, depending on my mood. I’ve gravitated toward the curved neck. It puts the horn in a more comfortable position . . . which makes it more enjoyable to play . . . which means I practice it more. Indeed, I’ve become a junkie. My beloved Conn 6M alto is probably feeling neglected lately, because the Barone soprano is such a pleasure to play. Moreover, based on the comments I’ve gotten from the guys in the band, it is turning out to be a superb voice for our unit.

GENEROSITY

I wouldn’t own this marvel of a horn were it not for the generosity of three people. One of them I know; one of them I have a feel for; and one of them is a mystery.

To Dave DeVos: Thank you for seeing my need for a soprano of my own, thinking of a solution that never would have occurred to me, and inquiring on my behalf.

To Phil Barone: Thanks for putting such a superb brand-new instrument in my hands at so affordable a price.

Last, but by no means least, to my Unknown Benefactor: Thank you for donating the purchase price of this horn. You sounded no horn of your own in doing so. You just quietly made my world a better place. I hope you’re one who sits often among those who enjoy My Thin Place, and when you hear the soprano, I hope it makes you smile.

In addition–Mike Doyle, thanks so much for generously volunteering the use of your Selmer Mark VI soprano, no strings attached, during the time when I was without. I call that exceptional of you.

Generosity is a beautiful thing, particularly in a culture so focused on self and on getting. In my own life, I’ve found that God rewards generous deeds in the oddest, timeliest, and sometimes most striking ways. I’ve never put stock in the so-called “prosperity gospel”; I don’t believe faith is about sticking a buck in the vending machine and getting ten bucks back. But I do believe “God loves a cheerful giver.” Generosity is in proportion to one’s means, and one of its earmarks is the satisfaction, even the joy, that a generous act releases in the heart of the giver. It’s about the motive. Generosity is its own reward. And yet, God takes it further and honors it in unexpected, practical ways.

Mike, Dave, Phil, and my Anonymous Benefactor: May the Lord honor each of you for your generosity.

SUMMING IT UP

Phil Barone soprano saxophones provide tremendous bang for the buck, even twice the buck. It’s safe to assume the same is true of Barone alto and tenor saxes. If you’re in the market for a new saxophone, you’ll do yourself a great service by looking into Phil Barone horns. Read the reviews. They’re impressive and they’re trustworthy. This post is my own unsolicited and unpaid review, and it’s my pleasure to write it. Phil came across to me as a brisk, down-to-business guy; he isn’t a talker on the phone. But his horns do his talking for him. If you buy one, I’m confident that you, like me, will be delighted.

Pentatonic Angularity for Jazz Improv: Two Exercises

When was the last time I shared a practical exercise for jazz improvisation on Stormhorn.com? It has been ages, hasn’t it.

So let me rectify that as best I can by giving you something substantial to chew on, or better yet, to take to the woodshed with you and work into your fingers and your playing.

Lately I’ve been revisiting pentatonic scales, with an eye on two things: (1) their usefulness in angular playing, and (2) their relationship to altered dominants. I’ll look at item two in a future post. Right now, let’s turn our attention to pentatonics as a source for angularity–that is, breaking out of the linear, scalar mode of playing by using broader intervals, particularly fourths, to create novelty and interest.

You can think of a pentatonic scale as a major scale (or a mixolydian or lydian mode) with a couple teeth knocked out. The fourth and seventh scale degrees are missing, creating a five-note scale with a couple built-in gaps. Those two gaps, as you begin to work with intervals in the scale, create broader leaps, and angularity arises naturally.

The two exercises in this post will help you build technical finesse with broader intervals in the pentatonic scale. Work out the first exercise till you’ve got it mastered in all twelve keys throughout the entire range of your instrument. Then move on to the second exercise and do the same, revisiting the first as you need to in order to help it “stick.”

Both exercises are built off of the relative minor of the Eb major pentatonic scale. I’ve assigned them to the C-7 chord; however, you can also use them with the EbM7 and Eb7 chords, as well as a few other chords which I’ll leave it to you to work out in your head and your playing. My concern here isn’t to deal in depth with theory and application but simply to give you something you can wrap your fingers around. You can trust I’m doing my best to gain command of them too. We’re traveling this path together. Practice diligently–and, as always, have fun!

Tips on Jazz Guitar for Beginners–Guest Post by Marc-Andre Seguin

Greetings, friends! My postings in Stormhorn are admittedly sporadic these days, but this blog is still very much alive. Storm chasing this year has been nonexistent for me, but that’s no surprise; it has been a lousy storm season for chasers across the board, even for those who live in Tornado Alley. But the musical side of things is going strong, and I’ve got a few practical ideas to share about pentatonic scales, altered scales, and their relationship. I just need to make the time to transcribe them and put them in print.

Guitar instructor Marc-Andre Seguin, however, has got some perspectives that are ready at hand to share. Perspectives from instrumentalists other than saxophonists such as I are most welcome; we can all learn from each other, and beginning jazz instrumentalists of every stripe can profit from Marc. His bio follows at the end, so I’ll spare you a lengthier introduction and hand the microphone over to him.

Tips on Jazz Guitar for Beginners

By Marc-Andre Seguin

Starting out on jazz guitar isn’t easy. The intricacies of the jazz language can seem insurmountable without direction. Here are a few tips to get you started on the path of jazz guitar mastery.

Listen

Without even picking up the guitar, it’s important to constantly listen to jazz recordings. Simply by hearing this style, many concepts are internalized, such as rhythm, phrasing, harmony and improvisation. Great recordings are available from legendary guitarists such as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, to name just a few, and they should be constantly playing in your ears.

But don’t stop at guitarists. It’s crucial to listen to other instruments as well. John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and others have made immense contributions to the style. So vary your listening habits to include these and other major contributors to the language.

Practice

Playing jazz involves muscle memory and good reflexes, and these are cultivated in the shed. Although the genre is often intellectual, most improvisations rely on unconscious movements to make the connection with our inner ear. It’s important to have a solid foundation on which to build our musical messages. Following are some simple approaches to practicing chords and scales.

Chords

There’s a simple approach to mastering the many voicings for guitar: start small and build up your chordal database little by little. Root forms of chords are the building blocks to more complex and extended variations. These forms can be learned starting from the sixth and fifth strings and, once memorized, can be practiced by reading out the chords of a standard.

There are four main chord types to learn: the major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, and minor 7b5. With these barebones varieties, you’ll be able to play most of the jazz repertoire.

Scales

Once you’ve memorized chords, you’re ready to apply the correct scales over them. Scales require a relatively large investment of time to learn, since there are multiple positions of the same scale all along the neck. The easiest approach is to methodically learn each scale and keep it in your fingers for an extended period until it becomes second nature.

Learn

To progress quickly, constantly learn new material. The more you explore the genre, the more fluent you will become in its language. Here are aspects in which you should invest your time.

Standards

Work at memorizing the hundreds of tunes that make up the standard repertoire of jazz musicians. Most are older, popular tunes from the “American songbook” that jazz instrumentalists have adapted to fuel improvisations. Learning them is not as daunting as it sounds; many are contrafacts: new melodies played over the chord changes of a popular song. “I Got Rhythm” is a classic example: many jazz standards use “rhythm changes” (as jazz musicians call them) for their harmony. Others are based on the blues grid, and that’s where I suggest you start. The simple heads (melodies) and chords of tunes like “C Jam Blues” and “Blue Monk” are perfect for beginning improvisers. And blues in minor keys provide a good introduction to other types of chords. A few other well-known standards that most beginners explore first are “Autumn Leaves,” “All the Things You Are,” “Blue Bossa,” and “Summertime”—and the list goes on. Learn the melody and the chord changes, then start improvising over the chords.

Licks

A classic way to absorb jazz vocabulary is to learn different licks from your favorite players. The classic, extremely profitable approach is to listen to their recordings, pick a lick you like, and then work at playing it yourself till you’ve got it right. A simpler way is to search the internet and your local bookstore for books of licks and patterns. Choose a lick, learn it in different keys, and start playing it over the standards you’re learning—and, eventually, in different positions on the guitar. The more such phrases you assimilate and begin to mix and match, the deeper will become your understanding of jazz mechanics.

Solos

Learn entire solos. If you are up to it, you can transcribe your own. Doing so is a complete jazz workout that will greatly enhance your abilities. The more you transcribe, the better you will get at it.

If you’re not up to transcribing, the internet is full of written solo transcriptions. Take advantage of them. Memorizing whole solos will show you how the pros and legends develop a jazz improvisation and how they navigate chord changes. You don’t need to stick to guitar solos, but they’re a good place to start. Some saxophone, trumpet, and piano solos can be quite hard to adapt to the guitar; however, they’re extremely valuable learning tools.

Play

If you have like-minded friends nearby who love playing jazz, get with them. I spent countless hours jamming with fellow students during my musical studies, and it was probably the most enriching experience I’ve had. Teaming with another guitarist or a bassist is an easy way to start, and you can share ideas and concepts. Playing with horn players will make you work on comping and solo playing, and playing with a pianist will force you to explore a more minimalist direction and creative ways of complementing the music.

* * *

There are many concepts to internalize in jazz. Gather information about them from various sources. Take everything at a steady pace, work your way slowly but surely through what you learn, and you’ll be surprised sooner rather than later at how it all falls into place. Happy practicing!

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind,” and teacher at JazzGuitarLessons.net, the number one online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his professional experience both as a jazz guitarist and an instructor to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

Stormhorn.com Returns: A Modest But Happy Summary of The Year’s Storm Chases

Wow! More than a year has passed since I’ve posted in this blog. So much has happened, some of which amounts to a veritable sea change in my life. But I’m not going to get into that here. Relevant for Stormhorn.com is this: the site’s URLs, which acquired an unwarranted and unwanted prefix when I was forced to switch from my superb but now defunct former webhost to Bluehost, are now fixed, and this blog is properly searchable and functional again.* Already, in just a couple days, I’ve seen three sales of my book The Giant Steps Scratchpad, and hopefully this site can once again gain some traction as both a jazz saxophone resource and a chronicle of my obsession with storm chasing.

As the dust began to settle from a painful but beneficial transition, I found myself with the wherewithal to finally chase a bit more productively and independently than I have in a long time. It felt wonderful—wonderful!—to hit the Great Plains again in a vehicle that is trustworthy, economical, and comfortable for driving long distances. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota—hello, old friends. It was so good to see you again at last, such a gift to drive your highways and take in your far-reaching landscapes . . . and yes, to exult in your storms, your wild convection that transforms your skies into battlegrounds of formidable beauty.

It is a long drive from Michigan to tornado alley, eight hundred miles or more just to get to the front door. Ironically, I could have spared myself most of my first trip. It landed me in Wichita overnight, then on to chase the next day in southwest Kansas and northeastward almost to Salina. No tornadoes, though. They were there, all right, but I was out of position and uninclined to punch through a bunch of high-precip, megahail crud along the warm front in order to intercept potent-looking (on the radar) but low-visibility mesocyclones. Two days later, though, on May 20 in northwest Indiana on my way back home, the warm front was exactly the place to be, and I filmed a small but beautiful tornado south of Wolcott. It was my one confirmed tornado of the year.

A few weeks later I hit the northern plains with my friend Jim Daniels, a retired meteorologist from Grand Junction, Colorado. It was his first chase, and for me, one of the blessings, besides the good fellowship and opportunity to build our new friendship, was introducing someone to chasing who already had his conceptual toolkit assembled. No need to explain how a thunderstorm works or how to interpret radar—Jim’s a pro; I just handed him my laptop, let him explore the tools, and we were ready to rumble.

Except—no tornadoes.

Then came August and a shot at severe weather right here in Michigan. I tagged along with a slow-moving, cyclic, lowtop supercell with classic features through the western thumb area of the state. It was nicely positioned as tail-end Charlie, sucking in the good energy unimpeded. A little more instability and it could have been a bruiser. As it was, it cycled down to the point where I thought it was toast, just a green blob on GR3, at which point, faced with a long drive home, I gave up the chase. Naturally the green blob powered back up and then spun up a weak twister ten or fifteen minutes later.

I didn’t mind missing the tornado. Well, not much. I had chased about fifty miles from Chesaning to south of Mayville, about two and a quarter hours, and gotten plenty of show for my money—rapidly rotating wall clouds, a funnel or two, and some really sweet structure of the kind you rarely see in Michigan. Then on the way back, as a cold front swept in, the sunset sky was spectacular.

Waterspout season has also come and gone, and I hit the lakeshore a number of times. One of those times was fruitful, and I captured some images of a couple picturesque waterspouts out at Holland Beach. They were all the more interesting because they occurred southwest of a clearly defined mesocyclone. But I’ll save that and a pic or two for a different post. It deserves a more detailed account, don’t you agree?

Stormhorn.com is about jazz saxophone and improvisation as well as storm chasing. So if jazz is your preferred topic, stay tuned. It’ll be comin’ at ya. Got a few patterns and licks to throw at you that I think you’ll enjoy.

That’s all for now. Stormhorn.com is back in the race.

 

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* The one exception is the photo gallery. Photos in individual posts work fine, but the links on the photos page don’t work.

Also, formatting is messed up in the text of a lot of older posts. So I still have some issues to work through with BlueHost. I’ll probably have to pay to get the image gallery working right again; hopefully not so with the formatting stuff.

Microphone Shootout at Fast Trax Studio

I’ve never thought deeply (or much at all) about the subtle nuances of different microphones for recording the saxophone. Not, that is, until the other day, when veteran recording engineer Robert Reister invited me to participate in a microphone sMe at Fast Trax_Microphone Shootout RCA-77DXhootout at his Fast Trax Studio in Jenison, Michigan.

Fast Trax has been around for a long time—1986, to be precise. A lot of musicians have gone through that studio, and a lot of music has been made there. I participated in one or two projects myself in days of yore. But they were way, way yore, and I hadn’t seen the inside of Rob’s studio in a couple decades. So it came as a pleasant surprise when Rob connected with me back in December and invited me to bring my sax over after the holidays and try out some microphones.

Some microphones indeed! All top end, including a few vintage mics such as the RCA 77DX I’m blowing into in the photo. There were ten in all, which Rob ran through two different cutting-edge preamps for a total of twenty takes. Shooting for consistency, I played the head to Coltrane’s “Mr. P. C.” twenty times over—not the most creative saxophonistry, perhaps, but that wasn’t the point. This was an engaging project: plenty of fun laying down the samples tracks, and an equal amount of interest in listening to them afterward.

You can hear the results yourself in the two videos below. The sound is purely the microphones and the two preamps. No sound processing whatsoever is involved, so what you hear for each microphone is exactly what the mic itself “heard.” It’s the sound-engineering equivalent of camera RAW in photography.

To be honest, my ears aren’t that discriminating. I’d be happy recording through any of these microphones, all of which, as I’ve mentioned, have proven track records as studio horn mics. I do, however, have my preferences. What about you? Give the videos a listen. Do you have a favorite, or maybe even a couple mics you particularly like (or dislike)? Please feel free to comment. Your input is most welcome, and I’ll share it with Rob, who I’m certain will value it.

 

 

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.

Music

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.

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.