Things a Jazz Musician Never Hears Anyone Say

You see this? It's a rare phenomenon in Michigan called "rain" (pronounced rayn). It began yesterday as a closed 500 mb low settled in over the state, and it looks like it will be with us for a while, as the low seems content to linger. You can see a hint of cyclonic swirl on the radar. And that's not all: as I write, just a quarter past noon, the KGRR station ob shows a temperature of only 57 degrees. After a heat wave that has stretched from June into early August, with temperatures in Michigan exceeding the 100-degree mark at times, suddenly it looks and feels like autumn. Yesterday I traded my shorts for blue jeans. Even during a normal summer, that rarely happens. After a historic, severe drought that has mummified Michigan and crippled much of our nation, this steady rain and respite from the heat is beyond welcome. It is a godsend, and those of us who believe in God thank him for it. "He sends his rain on the just and the unjust"--and to the just and the unjust alike, it is a great beneficence. Next week there's the possibility of a trough digging down from Canada across the northern-tier states, with jet energy bringing the potential for severe weather in the Great Lakes sometime Wednesday and/or Thursday. But that's far from certain at the moment. The GFS has painted some wildly varying scenarios, and the most I can see right now is that both it and the ECMWF agree on troughing, with the Euro painting the more potent picture. Okay, enough of the weather. Let's talk about music. A while ago, I posted a status update on Facebook that struck me as pretty funny. I have a great appreciation for my own sense of humor, which is a good thing because it means that I have at least one fan. What I hate is when I tell a really hilarious joke and then I don't get it. Then I have to explain the punch-line to myself, and that just ruins it. Fortunately, that doesn't happen often. Most of the time, I break out into spasms of laughter, and people look at me oddly, and ... getting back to my Facebook post: I figured that I'd share it here and then add onto it whenever I feel inclined. Feel free to post your own additions in the comments section. Without further ado, here are ...

Things which, as a jazz musician, I have yet to hear someone say:

. "Could you turn up the volume? You're not loud enough." "For our first dance, we want you to play 'Giant Steps.'" "You want $100 per musician to play at my club? Is that all? I'm doubling your rate. It's about time you musicians gave yourselves a cost-of-living raise." "First tahm playin' hyeer at the Eyegouge Saloon, eh? Well, I hope yew boys play a lot of Ornette Coleman. Folks hyeer get mighty disturbed if'n they don't get their Ornette. And another thang: do NOT, if yew value yer life, play 'Free Bird.'" "I know we're an all-white church praise team with three guitars, but we only like playing in the flat keys." "What t'hell you mean, you don't have a trombone player? How can a jazz band not have a trombone? Tell you what: you come back next week with a trombone player and I'll shell out an extra hunnerd-fifty bucks."

Saxopedia: Introducing a New Saxophone Website

A few days ago I received a note from Italian saxophonist Gianfranco Balena informing me of his new website, Saxopedia. Having checked it out, I'm taking a moment to recommend that you do the same if you're a saxophonist--or, for that matter, if you're a jazz instrumentalist of any denomination. Saxopedia is clearly a labor of love on the part of Mr. Balena, and it looks to be a site that will be regularly updated. Of particular interest is the index of jazz solos. Featuring links to over 1,000 free solo transcriptions that cover a huge array of well-known saxophonists, this is as exhaustive a compendium of solos for memorization and study as you'll ever find. It's a terrific resource, and you owe yourself a visit. Once you've been there, I'm betting you'll return for more. I will, that's certain.

Live Saxophone Jazz Friday at The Seasonal Grille in Hastings

Tomorrow night keyboardist Bob VanStee and I join forces to play for the one-year anniversary of The Seasonal Grille in downtown Hastings. I feel honored to be a part of the celebration. Justin Straube and his crew are great to work with. They appreciate their musicians, genuinely enjoy the music, and all around are just plain "good people." In other words, this place is a pleasure to play at. Justin has turned out a first-class dining establishment that gives his patrons far more than their money's worth. The ambiance is comfortably elegant, the kind where you can dress up or dress down and feel good about either option. As for the food and the prices, it's hard to believe that culinary creations of such superb quality can be so ridiculously affordable. You'd have to look far and hard in order to find meals of comparable gourmet deliciousness that cost so little. Frankly, I don't know how Justin does it. I think a large part of it is, he simply wants to give people a good deal. Anyway...Bob and I play tomorrow (Friday) from 6:00–9:00 p.m. Come on out and get a plateful, a beerful, and an earful. I might add, this is a great date-your-mate location! Here's the info:
  • The Seasonal Grille
  • 150 West State Street
  • Hastings, MI
  • Time: 6:00–9:00 p.m.
  • Phone: (269) 948-9222
Some of my storm chasing friends will be coming out tomorrow to hang out with each other. Maybe I'll see you there too.

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.

Stormhorn Jazz at the Cobblestone Bistro (Or, The Difference a Bass Makes)

Saturday evening at the Cobblestone Bistro here in Caledonia was one of those very rewarding gigs that result from the combination of a stellar rhythm section, a beautiful setting, and an appreciative audience. I couldn't ask for better guys to play with than Paul Lesinski and Dave DeVos. Each is a seasoned, top West Michigan veteran on his instrument, and both are just plain nice, down-to-earth guys with no attitudes to deal with. They're responsible and easy to get along with, solid and intuitive musicians who've been around the block many times over, so I have confidence in them. That confidence in turn inspires my own creativity and willingness to take risks as a saxophonist. Last Friday on New Years Eve, Steve Durst and I played for the dinner crowd as a piano-sax duo. With years of experience under his belt, Steve does a superb job, and we got some very nice compliments. But man, what a difference the addition of Dave on bass made this weekend! I'm certain Steve would readily agree that having to fill in the bass part with the left hand greatly limits what a keyboard player can do. Good players can pull it off, but I don't know of any pianist who wouldn't much prefer having a bassist handle the bass part so his own left hand is free to do what it's meant to do in a jazz context. The difference is huge--the groove, far better; the sound, fuller and richer; the creative options, much broader; and the energy, multiplied. All without any significant increase in volume that can distract from conversation in a restaurant setting. The crowd certainly liked our sound. People were actually listening to us and applauding from tune to tune, and even for some of the solos. I stopped to chat with a few of the diners during break, thanking them for their responsiveness, and I got some glowing comments in return. It's really gratifying to see the interest in jazz that exists in this rural neck of the woods, many miles from the urban center of Grand Rapids. We play again at the Cobblestone this coming Saturday from 6:30-9:30 p.m., this time with Steve filling the piano chair. If you like live jazz, come on out and enjoy an evening of good food and world-class wines plus the Stormhorn Jazz trio, all in an ambience-rich setting that will warm you as soon as you set foot through the door. Here's the info:
• Date & Time: Saturday, January 15, 6:30-9:30 p.m. • Place: The Cobblestone Bistro & Banquet Center • Address: 9818 Cherry Valley Ave. SE (M-37), Caledonia, MI • Phone: (616) 588-3223 Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome.
I should mention the large and beautifully designed banquet hall in the back of the building, styled in the manner of a large, European sidewalk cafe. Ben, the owner, is contemplating special events, so keep your eyes open for jazz concerts in the future. I'll keep you posted on this site and on my Stormhorn page on Facebook as brainstorms and good ideas become actual dates on the calendar. Need I say, please come out and support the Cobblestone. It's a great setting and has the potential to distinguish itself not only for destination dining, but also as a hotspot for jazz that's located outside the urban clutter, yet close enough to be convenient.

Praise Team or Praise Family? Some Thoughts for Worship Ministry Leaders

The single, most far-reaching improvement you can make in your praise team involves the "C" word, "connecting."
Worship ministry leaders, let me speak frankly. I've been a disciple of Jesus for 30 years now, and most of that time I've served in praise bands of various kinds. So when I write, it's from an insider's perspective, and a fairly seasoned one. It's from that point of view that I'm telling you, something vital is missing from many--I daresay most--evangelical praise teams today. Actually, two things are missing. Let me pose a question: How much of your weekly rehearsal times do you set aside for your team to connect with each other and to pray together? In my experience, the answer for a lot of teams, truthfully, is, not much. Sure, the team members exchange greetings and a bit of conversation prior to practice, and the leader begins the rehearsal with a quick prayer asking God to bless the team's efforts and vowing to give him all the glory. But when it comes to really connecting with one another and with God, deliberately and intimately, rehearsal times are typically two hours wide and half an inch deep. I understand that there's music to be learned and practical affairs to be discussed. But ladies and gentlemen, this is probably the only day of the week other than  Sunday when you're all together. If you don't devote a substantial part of it to growing not just as musicians, but as a little family who cares for each other and seeks God together, then what is it, really, that makes you a ministry? For that matter, what is it, other than the music you're playing and the venue where you're playing it, that sets you apart from any secular band? Because ministry lies in the moment and in your ability to relate to each other as complete people, not just as components of a band who fill neat little roles with set expectations--who play your parts and then go your separate, disconnected, and quite possibly painful and lonely ways. Ministry starts in your midst as you prioritize what God values most, and that's not music. It's your brothers and sisters. It's family. Jesus revealed God as our Father, not our band director. I submit that making time for each other and for God is every bit as important as practicing tunes, and more. Except for the occasional new tune, you already know the material--you've been playing it for a long time. Chances are you know the music a lot better than you know each other. So, worship director, if you want to take your team to the next level of ministry, here's where your greatest, most potentially life-changing opportunity lies. Not in your programming. Not in sound checks. Not in massaging a new, creative twist into a particular song. The single, most far-reaching improvement you can make in your praise team involves the "C" word, "connecting." I'm not saying the other things aren't important. I'm just saying that there's something else that's more important, and if you don't get that in place, then none of the rest matters. Not really. I think we evangelicals need to change our ministry model from that of a praise team to a praise family. And I think we need to invest the idea of rehearsal time with greater depth and breadth, as a time not only to tighten down the tunes and their order in next Sunday's service, but also and more importantly, to grow closer together and to God in ways that give substance to the teachings and heart of Jesus. He didn't say that the world would know we're his disciples by the music we play, but by the love we have for one another. Moreover, the request that Jesus' disciples asked of him was, "Lord, teach us to pray," not, "Teach us to play." So, here's my proposal: What would happen if your team devoted the first half-hour to 45 minutes of your rehearsal time to enhancing your relationships and your prayer life? Before you ever flip on a switch, tweak a dial, or pick up an instrument, you sit down and share your lives with each other with an honesty, care, acceptance, and mutual appreciation that goes beyond just scratching the surface. And you pray--not just the team leader, but all of you, one by one, organically--from your hearts with a hunger for God that far exceeds, "Lord, we come to you and give you praise and ask that you bless our practice time, and we give you all the honor and glory, amen." I challenge you to try it once and see if something good doesn't happen. Then do it again, and again, every time you come together as a praise team. Persistence will bear fruit, and I believe that the fruit will in time ripen into something far better, more powerful, more Christlike, and more genuinely ministry, than you can imagine. Show me a praise team that has something like what I've just described in place and I'll come running to join it. I've played a lot of music over the years with a lot of very talented musicians, both Christian and secular, so I couldn't care less how hot a band sounds.  Music isn't a draw for me; spiritual and relational depth are. If you can offer me that, then I'll gladly offer you my saxophone in return--along with all the rest of who I am as a person and brother in Christ--if you've got room for me in your praise family.

A Fun Gig at the Boatwerks

One of the things I enjoy most is playing jazz with friends whose musicianship I respect and whose company I enjoy. Interpersonal dynamics make such a difference. The format does too. My preferred habitat is the small combo, which offers a maximum amount of spontaneity and creative interplay, and allows me to stretch out as a sax soloist. All of what I've just described was the setting today out on the patio at the Boatwerks in Holland, Michigan. The musicians were Paul Sherwood on drums, Wright McCargar on keyboards, and Dave DeVos on bass--guys I've played with quite a bit over the past few years and whose abilities I trust. This gig was my introduction to the Boatwerks, and it was a delightful one. The Boatwerks is situated on the south side of the channel that connects Lake Macatawa to Lake Michigan, across from Holland State Park. It is a lovely setting and today's audience was an appreciative one. The only improvement I could have asked for would have been to dial down the temperature and dewpoints by about 10 degrees. Unfortunately the weather doesn't take requests, and me being a sweaty kinda guy, my face quickly began perspiring like a sprinkler system. Kiss any images of being a cool jazz musicianly type good-bye! That was just a minor detraction, though. This was the kind of gig I love to do: three hours in a beautiful location outdoors on the waterfront on a pleasant summer afternoon. I had really been looking forward  to it, and I was pleased with how my chops rose to the occasion. They've been feeling great lately. The practice I've been doing in the keys of F# and Eb seems to be paying dividends all across the board. Between Paul and me, we did a few vocal numbers as well as instrumentals. I love to sing, and while it has taken me time to muster up the confidence to do so, it turns out that I've got a pretty decent voice. It was nice to be able to sing "Days of Wine and Roses" and "My Funny Valentine" and then follow up the lyrics with a sax solo. The Boatwerks is a great place and I hope we'll get an opportunity to play there again soon.

What Is Jazz?

The headline for this post is a bit deceptive. I'm really not interested in offering one more definition of jazz, or of discussing elements such as swing, syncopation, improvisation, blue notes, and so on. All of that has been abundantly covered in a bazillion books on jazz history, jazz theory, and jazz musicians. A better title, though a more confusing one at first glance, might be, "What ISN'T Jazz?" It's a question I've contemplated off and on. In that respect, I guess I'm no different from a multitude of other jazz musicians who have pondered the same issue over the years and ventured their opinions. Often you don't hear the question expressed as a question, but as a conviction delivered with some heat: "That isn't jazz!" Let me say up front that I consider the topic of what is and isn't jazz to be pretty academic. I'm more fascinated by the fact that some people get so passionate about defending a sacred ideal, some essence of jazzness, than I am by the subject itself. Yet I have to confess that I find the same attitude rearing up in me on occasion--times when it bothers me to hear the word "jazz" used to describe something I wouldn't consider to be even close to jazz. Improvised music, quite possibly; jazz, no. So what am I, an elitist? If I am, I'm certainly not hardcore about it. Frankly, the intensity and hair-splitting that I've witnessed over the jazz/not-jazz issue has struck me as ridiculous, not to mention pointless, since it's one of those debates that will never be settled. That being said, I think the word "jazz" does get used too freely at times. Case in point: I've played in lots of church worship teams over the years. Most of them have involved a lot of white folks playing guitars. Nothing wrong with that, but I cringe whenever I hear someone say, "Let's jazz it up." It's kind of like hearing a mariachi accordionist say, "Let's rock and roll!" What does it mean to "jazz it up"? I'm not sure, but I can testify that the results I've witnessed have never resembled jazz. Musicians who rarely if ever listen to jazz, let alone practice it, aren't going to just suddenly produce it like Bullwinkle pulling a rabbit out of the hat. So here I am, caught between two extremes. On the one hand, I can be a jazz racist, aggressively and vehemently defending the purity of the form (according to my ideal of it) and getting my undies all in a bunch over musical miscegenation. On the other hand, I can adopt so inclusive a perspective that the word "jazz" can mean just about anything under the sun, and consequently mean nothing at all. It seems like there ought to be a less polarized option. Maybe there is. If so, finding it is probably best begun by defusing some of the negativity inherent to this topic. Coming from a jazz purist, the words, "That's not jazz!" come across as an indictment. Upon hearing Weather Report in concert, Ben Webster is reported to have flown into one of his famous rages, walked onstage, and overturned Joe Zawinul's electric piano. Such behavior is an extreme, but it captures the attitude of those who are so entrenched in an ideal that they judge and attack whatever doesn't match up. It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way. How can any two people have a decent, productive discussion with that kind of Hatfield-McCoy mentality? So let me be plain: When I say that something isn't jazz, I'm not saying it's bad music. Neither am I saying it's good music. I'm not making value judgments at all. I'm just saying that I don't consider the music I'm hearing to fit under the jazz umbrella. That's all. Why try to make something be what it isn't? Why not just let it be what it is and recognize that, if it's done well, it has its own legitimacy? Distinguishing between jazz and non-jazz involves at least a certain amount of subjectivity. That's certainly true of me as I share a few of my own thoughts on the topic. With that acknowledgment, I'd like to address what I think are a few misconceptions about jazz: * IMPROVISATION. Some people use the word "jazz" to describe extemporaneous playing. But while improvisation is a crucial hallmark of jazz, it's not an exclusive one. Rock musicians improvise. Bluegrass musicians improvise. Classical musicians improvise. Beethoven wove melodies and harmonies out of thin air long before Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet ever played a blue note. * THE BLUES SCALE. Playing the blues scale is not the same thing as playing jazz. Playing the blues scale is playing the blues scale. The blues scale and blue notes are components of a good jazz vocabulary, but they're only a part of it, and, as with improvisation, they're not exclusive to jazz. Rock guitarists use the blues scale extensively. * HARMONY. The chords associated with jazz are usually quite colorful due to the use of upper tones and creative voicings. Ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths are normative, along with various chord alterations. In jazz, a V7 chord is rarely just a V7 chord; keyboard players and guitarists add upper extensions as a matter of course. While simple triads are used from time to time, jazz is not a triadic idiom. It is vertically complex, giving rise to sophisticated voice leadings. That's one big reason why non-jazz musicians who decide they're going to "jazz up" a piece of music usually wind up sounding hokey rather than hip. Conceptually, they don't have the harmonic (and rhythmic) know-how to pull it off. If that's you, don't let me discourage you from making the attempt. Rather let me encourage you, while you're in the process, to learn a bit about jazz harmony and voice leading. There's plenty of knowledge that's available on the topic both in print and online. This Wikipedia article is a good place to start. * HORNS. Adding a sax or trumpet to a tune, or even using that tune to showcase a horn player, does not automatically result in jazz. * TUNES. Jazz is not a matter of the song that's played but of how it's interpreted. Playing "In the Mood" or "Take the A Train" doesn't mean that a band is playing jazz. It means they're playing melodies and chord changes that were written in the Big Band Era, but stylistically, the way a tune is handled might be closer to a polka than to jazz. I could easily add to the above list, but what I've written is enough to get the idea across. Again, though, the topic of what is and isn't jazz is prone to subjectivity. It's safe to say that at some point, a piece of music--or rather, how that piece gets interpreted--crosses a jazz/non-jazz line. But different people, including and especially jazz musicians, will have different ideas about where that line lies. That's one reason why I don't work myself into a lather over whether, for example, the stuff that Kenny G. puts out is jazz. Does it really matter? Kenny's music may not be my personal cup of tea, but I have a hunch that if you hired the guy for a standards gig, he'd make it through the evening just fine. As it stands, what he does for a living beats delivering pizzas. As for the debate over what is and isn't jazz, a more fruitful question to ask is, do you like what you hear? Do you like what you're playing? Then enjoy it and don't worry too much about defining it. It may or may not be jazz, but good music is good music no matter what you call it.

Recording Session with Ric Troll and Dave DeVos

This afternoon was a great time in the studio with my friends Ric Troll and Dave DeVos. Ric's recording studio, Tallmadge Mill, is a topnotch home studio. Some years ago, Ric and I used it to record Eyes on Mars, a CD of free jazz and experimental music featuring drums and saxophone. Now another project is on the griddle, this time with the very welcome addition of Dave on bass. After warming up with "Big Foot," a Charlie Parker blues, the three of us launched into a broad variety of original tunes, some with written heads and changes by Ric, and others that were simply concepts and musical games which maximized listening and empathic, responsive improvisation. What a privilege to make music with two such high-caliber musicians--guys who enjoy exploring far beyond the American Songbook, and who possess the imagination and technical finesse to turn such experimentation into a genuinely musical experience. More recording lies in store. I'm not sure just how much, but I'll keep you posted as things develop. At some point, I should also have a few audio clips to share with you, so stay tuned to this blog for updates.

Band Link Up: A New Virtual Community for Musicians

Attention, jazz musicians and other purveyors of melody! Want to get in on the groundswell of an online community devoted to musicians? Then click on Band Link Up, look it over, take a minute to register, and then start posting and helping this unique labor of love to grow into a thriving virtual hangout for musicians, vocalists, singer/songwriters, and other artistes of every stripe. I first got wind of it while installing a new operating system on my laptop. The tech who was assisting me, aka Jeff, and I got to chatting while waiting for a lengthy download to complete, and once we got onto the subject of music, things naturally progressed from there. Turns out that Jeff's fiancee plays violin and loves to connect with other musicians. So as a gift to her, Jeff decided to put together an entire site dedicated to the purpose of helping musicians talk shop, trade ideas, share sound tracks and videos, and so forth. I've already registered, and I'm encouraging all my musical friends and everyone who is actively involved in performance, recording, composing, or music education to do the same. Band Link Up shows great potential as a service to musicians. Please get on board and help make it happen.