Happy New Year from Stormhorn

A white-breasted nuthatch was at my bird feeder a few minutes ago searching hopefully for seed. Poor little thing! The seed stash has been low these past few days. Monday I sprained my left ankle while hiking in Yankee Springs, and I haven't been up to replenishing the feeding station. In fact, my life has been largely reduced to sitting in the couch keeping my leg elevated and my ankle iced. Lisa has been taking great care of me. Still, I like to do what I can for myself, so for three days I hobbled around gingerly, thinking that, c'mon, I hadn't hurt myself all that badly. But I had, and I wasn't doing my ankle any favors. Yesterday I finally concluded that maybe crutches wouldn't be a bad idea after all. I've never used them before, and these ones have taken some getting used to. I wish they came with training wheels. But I'm getting the hang of them, and taking the stress off my ankle is definitely helping. Maybe in a few days I won't need the crutches anymore. Anyway, I just refilled the finch sack with thistle seed and both feeding tubes with sunflower seed. A couple of chickadees have already discovered the fresh supply, and it won't be long before the rest of the birds do as well. I think it'll be a matter of only minutes before the finches arrive and my balcony will once again swarm with bird action. What a wild and difficult ride this year has been! And now we've arrived at the last day of it. Poised on the brink of 2012, I look back and think, whew! No repeats, please. Nationally and globally, this has been a year of horrific natural disasters, economic turmoil, and unprecedented political upheaval. On a personal level, I have struggled financially as copywriting projects for a key client slowed down from what had been an abundance to a trickle and finally to nothing. The tight finances massively hampered my ability to chase storms, and consequently I had to sit out some incredible events. Missing them was more than frustrating; it was painful, and it has taken a toll on my sense of identity as a storm chaser. Thankfully, there have been good things to even out the bad. I published The Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete, which duplicates the material in The Giant Steps Scratch Pad in all 12 keys. That has been a major accomplishment. I also began chasing locally for WOOD TV's Storm Team 8, and my first chase for them resulted in a pretty solid coup during a damaging straight-line wind event down in Battle Creek. Also I got to experience Hurricane Irene down in South Carolina, and while I opted out of catching the eye at landfall, I saw enough both on the coast and inland to satisfy my curiosity. Moreover, Lisa has been recovering nicely from a horribly painful frozen shoulder that she incurred at the beginning of the year. And while Mom's knee replacement sidelined me from chasing what turned out to be a history-making super-outbreak of tornadoes down in Alabama on April 27, the result has been more than worthwhile; Mom's knee is now pain-free and Mom can walk again. As for my copywriting and editorial business, The CopyFox, other opportunities have been coming my way. I definitely miss the steady flow of business from my key client, but I much enjoy the new kinds of projects I've been getting from Bethany Christian Services and Baker Books. I'm currently in the middle of editing a book for Heart & Life Publishing, a new publishing service operated by my friend Kevin Miles. If there's one bit of wisdom that I continue to prove through the years, it's to step through open doors and embrace new opportunities to learn and grow in the talents God has given me. It's important to know when to say no; but that being understood, there is a lot in life to say yes to. I have no resolutions for the New Year. There are and will be goals big and small to reach for in their proper time, and I find that approach to be more realistic than making resolutions. I do hope, though, that I'll get in a few successful chases this coming storm season to make up for the ones I've missed this year. Still no snow, by the way, and it looks like that's how it'll stay through tonight. The 1723 UTC station obs show 38 degrees at GRR, and we're forecasted to get up into the low 40s, so a green New Year is in store, just like last year. But it won't stay that way for long; West Michigan's first major winter storm is set to dump six to eight inches of snow on us tomorrow through Monday, and these warm temperatures will soon be a thing of the past. January is poised to swoop in with fangs bared. So it's a good thing I got those bird feeders filled back up. The finches still haven't arrived. But the chickadees have been doing steady traffic, a couple of rosy-breasted nuthatches are making sporadic appearances, and the woodpeckers have been bellying up to the suet all along. The birds are taken care of. Now it's my turn. It's early afternoon and I'm still sitting here in my robe; time to shower up and get the rest of this day in gear. Lord, thank you for this difficult but nevertheless gracious year. When disappointment and hardship hit, I find it easy to complain. But you are always there in the midst of my life, and I have no problem seeing your goodness when I seek your priorities over my personal wants. My part is to do my best, but you're the one who calls the shots. Thanks for tonight's gig with my good friend Ed. Thanks for my dear, dear woman, Lisa, and for my mom and siblings and friends. Thanks for the gifts of storm chasing and music, which not only make me come alive, but also shape me as a person. Thanks for the beautiful Michigan outdoors which I love so much--the wetlands, the wildflowers, the sandhill cranes ratcheting in the marshes, the rivers and streams and lakes filled with fish, the blonde sweep of dunes along the Lake Michigan shore, the forested, glacial hills at sundown. Thanks for the gift of my senses that lets me drink in all of these things, and for emotions that let me feel the wonder of it all. Thank you for the gift of life. Thank you for love. Thank you, precious Lord, for you. I hope that a few of you will make it down to Fall Creek down in Hastings this evening to catch Ed and me. But whatever you wind up doing, have a fun and safe night. Happy New Year, one and all!

The Buttermilk Jamboree and Ed Englerth’s Latest CD, Hope. Dream. Sigh.

Saturday I played with the Ed Englerth Band at the Buttermilk Jamboree near Delton, Michigan. This was the first of what is likely to become an annual all-weekend event at the Circle Pines Camp in the heart of rural Barry County. It was a fun and interesting festival that combined music and arts with the cooperatively owned camp's longstanding values of ecology and sustainable living. As you might expect, the festival drew an eclectic crowd of every age, from old hippies to young musicians and everything between and beyond. Picture Woodstock in the woods and you've got the idea. In the midst of this colorful hodgepodge, Ed, Alan, Don, and I did an evening performance on the Sugar Bush Stage. Oddly, while we appeared in the online schedule, the paper printout didn't include us. We drew a decent group of listeners regardless, and Ed sold a few CDs from his newly minted album, Hope. Dream. Sigh. The CD is in fact so new that Ed paid extra for an early shipment, which arrived at his door mere hours before showtime. I want to talk a little about Hope. Dream. Sigh. I'm hesitant to say that it's Ed's best effort yet because his last CD, Restless Ghost, is so bloody good. But this CD is at least of that same caliber, and some of the arrangements are easily the most ambitious yet. This is largely due to the way that Ed utilized me on the saxophones. This is the first of his albums on which we...
  • multi-tracked my horn parts to create an entire sax section. The apogee of this approach is the tune "Sad Stories," with its ironic Calypso beat and wacky, humorous slant on relational woes.
  • created faux baritone sax tracks. Since I don't own a bari, and since "Empty Pockets" seemed to flat-out demand the incorporation of a bari, we made one electronically by laying down an alto track and then dropping it an octave digitally. It worked great! "Empty Pockets" cooks, an irresistibly driving, hardcore rocker.
  • made unprecedented use of my soprano sax. I've been reluctant to play the soprano on previous albums because, well, my intonation sucks. Or so I've always thought. But that problem doesn't crop up on this CD. Two songs feature the soprano in a big way, and in both of them the horn sounds fabulous. "I Do, I Don't" klezmerizes Ed's tongue-in-cheek commentary on fantasy living for the not-so-rich and delusional. On the serious side, "When Words Fail" is a minor, blues-drenched look at love that goes the distance when communication breaks down. I got a lot of room to stretch out on this tune as a soloist, and I'm delighted with the results.
  • . Ed is a fantastic songwriter and lyricist who steadfastly resists categorization. That's one reason why I respect him as an artist and love him as a friend. The man has integrity as well as soul. Moreover, in Alan Dunst on drums, Don Cheeseman playing bass, and, I trust, me on the saxophones, Ed has found a small, steady core of fellow musicians and brothers in Christ who grasp and believe in his music. Each album displays growth, new directions, fresh creative expressions. Yes I'm biased. Of course I am--what would you expect? But not so biased that I'd speak this glowingly of Hope. Dream. Sigh. unless I believed it was really just that good. It is. Check it out and see for yourself. I might add that, with 17 tracks, you'll get more than your money's worth. And with that, I'm signing off. Early morning has turned into mid morning and the rest of this Monday stretches before me, with work to do and necessities to attend to. Ciao.

    Going Beyond the Music

    Last night's rehearsal for our June 11 concert at the Buttermilk Jamboree with Ed Englerth, Alan Dunst, and Don Cheeseman was much more than a shared creative time with three of my favorite musical droogs. Life has been pretty intense lately--financial pressures, Mom recovering from a knee replacement, Lisa struggling with what appears to be a ruptured bicep, physical concerns of my own--and I'd be lying to say that I've born it all with a smile on my face. I haven't. I've felt weary, discouraged, and depressed. So reconnecting with the band and working on Ed's music gave me a badly needed release. I needed to just forget about the rest of life for a while and play my horn with some friends with whom I've shared a love of music for many years now under the auspices of Ed's songwriting. Speaking of which, the guy just keeps getting better and better, and so does the band. Ed's upcoming CD may be his best effort yet, which is saying a hunk considering the benchmark set by his last CD, Restless Ghost. I hope to finally hear the final master tonight, and then I'll know for sure which album is my favorite. What's certain is that we pulled out a few extra stops in the studio with this project, including the use of multiple sax tracks to create the effect of an entire sax section. Also, in an unprecedented departure from my die-hard devotion to the alto sax, I played my soprano on a couple tunes. I may have even played it in tune; I'll find out soon enough. But I was talking about how much I needed to tune up, blow some notes, and forget about the rest of life for while. Music is as much a part of life as anything else. In my case, it's a very good part and a very large part, and I needed to be reminded of that. When I forget what "normal" looks like, nights like last night help me draw back to the center of who God created me to be and reclaim some parts of myself that I sometimes lose track of. It seems that I wasn't the only one. Don and his wife have been going through a difficult, hugely demanding time with their new baby son, who has Down Syndrome and has struggled nonstop with acute allergies. Ed has been dealing with the advancing, age-related health problems of his beloved mother- and father-in-law, who reside with him and his wife, Panda. Alan was the only guy who didn't seem to have heavy stuff going on in his life at the moment, or if he did, chose not to share. But he's been through his own fires. We all have, and last night at least three of us were feeling the heat. So it seemed that the right thing to do, after we had finished practicing, was spend some time talking and praying together. It's so easy to just pack up the instruments and head home without ever thinking to pray. But there's power and healing in the honesty, faith, earnestness, and hope of collectively conversing with our heavenly Father. I would go so far as to say that a band of Christian musicians that bypasses the opportunity to get real with each other and with the Lord is missing what may well be the most vital part of their time together, more important even than the music (though that's important). Real is what the four of us got last night, and it was good. I left feeling not only connected with God and with the guys, but also reconnected with myself. Something about standing humbly and openly in the presence of Jesus has a way of doing that, of reminding me who and Whose I really am. The gloom lifts, the lies and warping influence of the world's nonstop millrace lose their grip, and I discover once again that quiet place where I can hear God speak. It is a place of peace and a place of power. When David spoke in Psalm 23 of God as the one who restored his soul, I understand what he meant. I think, I hope, that all of us last night discovered the potential of prayer and our need to incorporate it into our rehearsals more often. More even than the songs we play and the creative passion we share, the Spirit of Jesus Christ draws us together, and it's the thing that can take our band to the next level--possibly the next musical level, but more certainly the next level of what God has in mind for us. Lord, I thank you for last night's blessing of connecting with you and with my brothers Ed, Don, and Alan through the gift of heartfelt, down-to-earth, unpretentious prayer. Please look after each of my friends. You know their needs and you know mine. Care for us and our loved ones as a shepherd cares for the sheep of his pasture, for that is who you are: The Good Shepherd. Give us to hear and treasure your voice--for in it, and it alone, is life.

    Video: One for Daddy-O

    The classic Cannonball Adderly album Something Else includes a wonderful Bb minor blues written by Cannon's brother, Nat, titled "One for Daddy-O." The moody head fits the slow, shuffle groove perfectly and sets the tone for some fun improvisation. I videotaped this tune with my new Panasonic HDC-TM700 camcorder in my buddy Ed Englerth's basement studio, Blueside Down, the same evening as I taped "The Summer Knows." My Band-in-a-Box accompaniment doesn't capture the original arrangement's antiphonal quality, but it did what I needed it to for a simple, low-key recording.

    Playing Jazz on the Local Level

    Last night I spent an enjoyable evening playing in the orchestra pit for a production of the stage musical, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in Hastings, Michigan. Tonight I'll be there again, and tomorrow night. The cast is all high school kids, and they do a great job. My buddy, Ed Englerth, is sitting in on guitar, and Mark Ramsey on keyboards serves as musical director and does by far the bulk of the actual playing. My job is to keep my ears open and provide improvised sax work wherever it seemed appropriate. If that sounds like a rather loose approach, it is. But the informality and spontaneity are a good part of the fun for me. You see, we're not talking some high-pressure effort here that has involved weeks of practice (my preparation consisted of attending the dress rehearsal, then walking in last night and playing the gig). This is a local, grassroots production--which is by no means to minimize the talent, just to recognize a difference in approach that I really enjoy. That's what's nice about local efforts: they have an irreplaceable, homespun feel; they are high in entertainment value; they are often very well done; and they tap into and foster the gifts that are right at hand. Some surprisingly bright stars may be shining far from the Big City in a small town near you. This has been my first time playing with Mark Ramsey, and I'm impressed by his level of professionalism. Hastings, the capital of Barry County, Michigan,  is a small town blessed, as is many a small town, with a number of good musicians. My friend Ed Englerth, for instance, is an absolutely brilliant songwriter. Trumpet man and vocalist Joe LaJoye, the town's retired band director, is the driving force for jazz in the community and the spearhead of its annual jazz festival. And Mark is the first keyboard player I've encountered in the area who demonstrates a well-rounded command of his instrument, one that shows a grasp of many idioms ranging from jazz to show tunes to classical and more. And he's a very nice guy to boot. No attitude, just a humble spirit and a love for what he's doing, qualities that make him a joy to work with. As for the cast of the show, these kids are clearly having a good time. They're taking their roles as actors seriously, and they're having fun doing so. My point is, living in a small town doesn't necessarily mean lack of opportunity for a jazz musician. Depending on the community, you may delightfully surprised at what you find. Hastings is fifteen miles down the road from where I live in the cow town of Caledonia. My home town being an outlier of Grand Rapids, I have access to a broader music scene that I can tap into. When it comes to playing jazz, some of the musicians I play with reside in Grand Rapids, but others, like me, live farther out--far enough to enjoy the countryside, yet close enough to be a vital part of the West Michigan music scene. If you work hard at your instrument, and if personal growth as a musician is its own reward for you, then sooner or later you'll connect with other capable players. You'll make music. You may not make a living at it, but you'll find opportunities to share your talent with appreciative ears.

    Monte Montgomery Concert Tomorrow Night

    Whew, I have let waaaay too much time elapse since the last time I posted an entry in this blog. Let me mollify you with a nice, bright, sunny image from this cold, early March day. The following photo is one of a number that I took out at Pickerel Lake near Grattan Township in east-central Kent County. It's a beautiful area, and with spring rapidly rolling in, today was a great day to capture the beauty of the icy landscape while I still can.
    Pickerel Lake

    Pickerel Lake

    Cold as this day has been, there's no question that warmer weather is moving in. By Thursday, temperatures here in the Grand Rapids area should be in the forties. But I won't be here. I'll be with my storm chasing buddy Bill down in Louisville, Kentucky, where he'll be meeting with some of his clients while I do my own business on my laptop. Then from Louisville, we head out to Norman, Oklahoma, for an all-day severe weather forecasting workshop with Tim Vasquez on Sunday. I'm really looking forward to it! On the way out there, I hope to catch some early season action. The GFS is calling for a low to be positioned in Colorado or somewhere out there, and with a little luck, we'll see the right combination of moisture, lift, and kinematics to make life interesting somewhere between Louisville and Norman. Arkansas looks likely. We'll see. More immediately, and on the musical side of things, tomorrow night is the Monte Montgomery concert at the Intersection in downtown Grand Rapids. The concert got rescheduled from its original date last September due to illness, and now the time has arrived. I'll be playing with the Ed Englerth band as the opening act for Monte.  We rehearsed last night and sounded tight, and today I took my horn to the shop and got a leak tightened down, so all in all, I feel good about playing tomorrow. If you're in the neighborhood, come on out to the concert. Ed's material is strong, and if you've never heard Monte, prepare to be stunned. The man is a brilliant guitar player, rated one of the all-time top 50 by Guitar Player magazine. The show starts at 7:00 p.m. Admission is $10 (cheap!),  and worth every penny. See my events calendar for more details.