Within the dense aural stew that is Umphrey’s McGee some of the greatest, wrist-twistin’ stirring going on is done by keyboardist Joel Cummins. Nestled inside one of the burliest rhythm sections around and sandwiched between the ferocious twin guitar assault of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, Cummins rides, textural and sophisticated but nearly never flashy. He’s active as hell but not in ways that demand head-snap attention, always serving the music before his ego, and in the process becoming the secret ingredient inside what is arguably progressive rock’s greatest new top tier band in the past decade.
His solos are compact marvels that should already have him on Becker & Fagen’s shortlist for the next Steely Dan album, but generally Cummins is an instrumental conversationalist, commenting on and coaxing the best ‘dialog’ he can from his compatriots. When he does step out front he’s likely to make you sigh with the sheer beauty or intense emotional oomph of his playing. However, his ear for what isn’t being done by others – and unerring knack for filling that open space – is phenomenal. He watches and listens with undisguised enthusiasm, moving with real grace between multiple instruments in a single piece, taking from each just what each measure needs. If one wants proof of this dynamic look to Umphrey’s excellent 2011 release Death By Stereo (released September 13 on ATO), a pithy lesson in what this young yet remarkably mature keyboardist is capable of. In fact, the whole band has boiled down their wide spectrum reach into their most direct, immediately engaging collection yet, undoubtedly another stepping stone towards the heights they seem to continually climb.
Cummins is currently on a brief West Coast tour with Digital Tape Machine, who play tonight, December 2nd, in Hollywood and tomorrow, December 3rd, in San Francisco.
Here’s what Joel had to say in the Impound’s keyboardist survey.
- Favorite keyboard? Why?
- As a kid and through about 2003, it was the acoustic piano. In 2003, once I figured out how to play it, the Fender Rhodes became my favorite instrument. I loved how the dynamics added overtones and edginess to the sound. The acoustic piano is still a close second. And the Minimoog Voyager is definitely right up there, too, probably just barely in third place right now for its ability to be a like a lead voice, so alive, and its ability to create weird or atmospheric pad-like sounds.
- Tastiest keyboardist – i.e. not just soloing but also overall playing – currently working?
- This one is so tough. For acoustic players, I’d go with Keith Jarrett for his overall dexterity and amazing choices of notes and harmonies – just brilliant, every time. Chuck Leavell definitely gets honorable mention there for sure. For more electric style keyboard work, Medeski can kill it on any instrument, organ, piano, Rhodes, lead synth – he’s a master and a lot of fun to listen to.
- A keyboard solo I never get tired of listening to is…
- Continuing from the previous answer, I can always listen to Keith Jarrett’s live recording of the Koln Concert from January 24, 1975 (12 days after I was born on 1/12 – interesting!)…..the whole thing is amazing but “Part IIC” (which is on Spotify) is so beautiful, soulful and inspired. It’s a pinnacle in improvised solo piano music, in my opinion. I found a transcribed version of this and worked on it a bit with one of my students I had a few years back. So gorgeous and complicated, yet he made that up on the spot and NAILED it live.
Since I can’t just stop with one, I’ll give number two to Donny Hathaway for his solo in “The Ghetto” from his live recording at the Bitter End in NY; it’s a Japanese release. Willie Weeks’ solo that follows it is also one of my favorite bass solos. I feel like I’m always puttin’ that record on when people come over to my house and aren’t familiar with Donny Hathaway. It’s a great band groove / progression and Donnie plays it so understatedly but funky, it blows me away every time. The energy in the room from this show is insane, too. It sounds like the tiniest little room, but with the most kickin’ band of all time.
- Preferred brand of keys? Why?
- Moog Synthesizers and Yamaha acoustic pianos. Moog for their keyboard’s gorgeous tones and user friendliness; Yamaha for its brilliance and consistency in acoustic pianos. I’m very fortunate to say that both of them endorse me as well.
- Thelonius Monk, Bernie Worrell or Nicky Hopkins– which one gives you the biggest keyboard boner? What makes them SO sweet?
- Well, Thelonius came first for me of those three. I loved his wild modes that he used, it was just so original and playful, really fun stuff to try to learn and listen to. I discovered Bernie next, and then Nicky’s brilliance only in the past 10 years or so, mostly thanks to riding around in vans and buses with Jake Cinninger, Umphrey’s guitarist. Bernie is just the funkiest dude and created some classic lines that often defined my nights out in college, blasting through the PA at Jazzman’s in South Bend either before or after my band had played our gig. Nicky’s such a bluesy and just classic player, as an acoustic keyboardist, you envy a guy like him who seems to always play the right notes.
- One lesser known keyboardist folks should check out is…
- Chuck Leavell. He’s played in many of the best bands in existence, from the Allman Brothers to the Stones and as Clapton’s keyboardist. But few people really know much about him. Give the Allman’s “Jessica” another listen and enjoy that piano solo that he improvised completely on the spot. Clapton’s 24 Nights version of “Old Love” as well as his Unplugged version are two of the best keyboard solos I’ve ever heard. He’s also been a great asset to his Georgia community and beyond as someone who cares about the future of the earth.
- What aspect of being a keyboardist always makes you happy?
- I love the versatility of creating harmony with somewhere between 2 to 10 notes along with the ability to play leads and bend notes. When you look at a keyboard and can start to understand the harmonic aspects of all of these notes relative to one another, it’s a completely different experience than looking at the six strings of the guitar. Having played keyboard now for upwards of 30 years, I’ve noticed that the depth of the harmonic setup of the keyboard continues to expand the more you educate yourself with it. So, I guess my answer is discovery makes me happy, because the most exciting thing about playing music on a keyboard is discovering new harmonies and sounds. There’s always something new right around the corner if you want it to be.