Umphrey’s menu: Plenty of jam, but no noodles
September 5, 2009
ASPEN – If jam bands are on one side of the rock spectrum, what lies on the other is progressive rock. Groups that stress the jam are loose and patient, allowing musical peaks to arise out of the moment when band members, audience and the muse are in alignment. Whereas prog-rock bands build their songs with more forethought, ending up with a tighter, more precise sort of performance.
Umphrey’s McGee, a sextet founded in Indiana and now based out of Chicago, aims to take the best of both those worlds.
“The whole thing is about figuring out ways to improvise and solo, with an ear toward being real precise as a group. You’ve got to watch that slippery slope of heading toward noodling,” Joel Cummins, the band’s keyboardist, said, invoking the ‘N’-word – noodling – a derogatory term for instrumental solos that go nowhere. “You want to avoid those pitfalls.”
Just how does a band build a bridge from the spontaneous to the airtight? For Umphrey’s McGee, the answer is an extensive set of visual cues: a step forward or backward, a raising of the guitar, each one with a specific meaning. It is a method of communication taken not from the jam realm, but from prog-rock: “Frank Zappa used cues like that,” said Cummins from Champaign, Ill., where Umphrey’s McGee was in the middle of a two-night stand.
Cummins said the band’s guitarists – Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss – lift the guitar as a signal to go up a minor third. There are also ways to indicate a change in the root from a relative major to a minor, or to go to a fourth chord.
It probably comes as little surprise that Cummins didn’t teach himself keyboard in the basement of the suburban Chicago home he grew up in. He studied classical piano for years before moving into jazz and rock, eventually earning a degree in music theory from Notre Dame. He found he preferred the laid-back atmosphere of rock to the stringent nature of classical, but he was not the typical rock keyboardist: He liked guitar-heavy bands like Metallica and Led Zeppelin, and in the privacy of his room he continued to read classical scores.
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Cinninger, who joined Umphrey’s McGee in 2000 – three years after the band was formed – and brought with him what Cummins says is “a little heavier, more aggressive” sound, is also a schooled player. He has a degree in jazz from DePaul University, and according to Cummins, can imitate any guitarist you mention.
Cummins says those sophisticated influences are part of Umphrey’s McGee’s sound. “If anything, it’s something that finds its way into improvising a bit – key changes, chord changes,” he said. “We’re not actively trying to do that, but it’s inherently in there.”
The vast influences allow the band to shape its performances for a particular venue or audience. Longer shows allow for more improvisation. Playing the opening set Saturday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, Cummins says time will dictate a tighter set. And they will take the mountain setting into account as well.
“We may play some elevated music,” he said. “We’ll keep in mind that we’re at 8,000 feet and put on a rock show.”