Umphree’s McGee living in the moment, and playing Aspen |

Umphree’s McGee living in the moment, and playing Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kevin BrowningChicago rock sextet Umphrey's McGee performs Friday at Belly Up Aspen.

ASPEN – Jake Cinninger doesn’t have much against the long, meandering, one-chord jam – a technique known derisively as “noodling.” Matter of fact, Cinninger confesses to indulging himself in the occasional aimless wander through the woods with his guitar.

“Don’t get me wrong – if jamming for a half-hour in A minor feels right at the time, I’ll do it,” Cinninger said by phone, having just arrived in Salt Lake City. “But the idea is to build a complexity in the moment, and create something that sounds untypical. Like you built something.”

In the world of jam-bands – that universe apart from commercial radio, where 20-minute instrumental excursions are a thing to be celebrated rather than feared – Cinninger and his mates in the Chicago-based sextet Umphrey’s McGee stand out as quasi-architects. From their beginnings – at Notre Dame in 1997, three years before Cinninger joined the group – Umphrey’s McGee has had one foot in the jam world, where spontaneous expressions reign, and one in progressive rock, where songs are constructed objects made of complex rhythms, coordinated time changes and precise melodies.

When the band released its breakthrough album, 2002’s “Local Band Does OK,” it was seen as something fairly new – improvised music where the reference points seemed to be Yes and King Crimson more than Phish and the Grateful Dead. When Cinninger talks about his band, the guitarist whose name is repeatedly mentioned is not Jerry Garcia, but Frank Zappa – who pulled double duty as a composer of classical music.

“We use a lot of hand signals, like Zappa did. We call them baseball cues,” the 34-year-old Cinninger said of Umphrey’s McGee’s onstage technique. “There’s a sign language of the keys – I can sign ‘A,’ and everyone knows to move into the key of A. We can sound like we’re writing music in the moment.

“It’s a Zappa-esque mentality. He’d conduct his band, and have a series of signs or signals that would carry the message. If he spun his finger around his ear, the whole band would drop into a reggae groove.”

The approach has been successful. Umphrey’s McGee – which includes founding members, guitarist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins, as well as drummer Kris Myers, percussionist Andy Farag and Cinninger – tours in well-appointed theaters, and big festivals, including Lollapalooza, which is not traditionally a jam-oriented gathering. The group has also been a regular at several editions of the Bonnaroo festival, where they have earned the prestigious late-night slot.

They have made multiple tours of Europe, and played the Fuji Rock Festival, a massive event at a Japanese ski area. Their 2007 concert recording “Live at the Murat” earned not only a Jammy for best live album, but a four-star review from Rolling Stone. And the band’s gig Friday at Belly Up Aspen sold out well in advance.

Still, the band is itching to stretch into new territory, and not just a new batch of songs, but a game-changer that introduces a fundamentally new way of creating and presenting music. Thus, their new Stew Art Series of shows.

The Stew Art shows are something totally different. The shows bring 50 fans into the venue on the afternoon before a regular evening performance. Via cell phones, the listeners text ideas for a segment of music to the band’s technology guy, who then selects the phrases and posts them on an onstage screen. The band takes it from there, turning the words into a piece of music on the spot – until the next phrase is posted, and the music must take an appropriate turn.

“I feel like this gets to the core of music, the purpose of music,” Cinninger said. “We’re exposed to the core, and you can witness us racking our brains, trying to come up with something creative. That’s a classic artistic expression.”

Cinninger noted that the idea is not to simply create a flowing jam, but to actually compose in the moment, based on the phrases floated by the audience. “What’s beautiful about that is, if you have six musicians reacting to a phrase, you really get something out of it,” he said. “We’re trying to be purposeful with the phrase. We really have our thinking caps on, focused on what can we do that’s appropriate to the moment.”

The Grateful Dead sometimes came out for the free-form “Space” segment of their concerts with an overall theme. But Umphrey’s McGee is approaching their Stew Art happenings with a more specific mind-set. As Cinninger put it, they’re “looking at each other, rather than at our instruments.”

Umphrey’s McGee debuted the Stew Art format in early October at Milwaukee’s Eagles Ballroom. (They plan to do one Stew Art show for about every 20 regular concerts they perform. Friday’s Aspen stop does not include a Stew Art show; the next one is on Saturday, Jan. 23, at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium.)

The Stew Art concept and name – along with the band’s fundamental style of music – dates back to Sept. 9, 2001. The band was playing a friend’s wedding gig in a downtown Pittsburgh hotel. With a few days in Pittsburgh, they kept their equipment set up in the ballroom – the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom, to be specific.

“We ended up having quite a few drinks and turned our amps low and said, Let’s direct each other, rather than use an ESP jam technique. We looked at each other, and did something intentional.”

That became the template for Umphrey’s McGee music. Many shows since then have had a “Jimmy Stewart” segment of on-the-spot compositions that vary from night to night. “That’s what we rely on every night, those Jimmy Stewart jams,” Cinninger, who started out as a heavy metal drummer and went on to study composition before founding the Indiana band and eventually joining Umphrey’s McGee. “That’s our bread-and-butter, those jams where we don’t know where we’re going and neither does the audience.”

Listening back to the Stew Art recordings – there have been three events so far – Cinninger said a different sort of art form is emerging. He said the combination of audience participation, phrases like “afternoon busride in Jamaica” and “boy in a bubble,” and spontaneous music-making, has added a comical twist. Cinninger mentioned Vaudeville, and the improv-comedy TV show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

“They can be funny and kitschy rather than serious,” Cinninger said of the Stew Art jams. “It’s hilarious to listen back to the shows. We can get a ridiculous phrase – sexual chocolate – and I’ll start singing like a Bee Gee, making up lyrics about chocolate sauce.

“It comes off very Zappa-esque, which isn’t a bad thing. Zappa said, there should be more humor in music. Nothing is funnier than this.”

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