TALENT SCOUT - Joel Cummins - KeyboardMag
The Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist on his musical inspirations.

HOMETOWN: I grew up in Western Springs IL, just outside of Chicago and have resided in Venice Beach, CA with my wife for the past seven years. Southern California definitely feels like home these days.

MUSICAL TRAINING: I studied piano with a wonderful teacher named Kathi Best from age 8-18, playing mostly classical but also starting on some jazz, blues and ragtime. During that time I also sang in multiple choral groups - some mixed, some larger and some smaller at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, IL where I was an all-state honors vocalist for two years. I received a bachelor’s degree in music theory with a concentration in piano performance from the University of Notre Dame in 1998. While in school at Notre Dame, I toured Europe, Israel and the United States with the Notre Dame Men’s Glee Club. Since then I’ve continued to take lessons with various teachers here and there to further enhance my skills and understanding of music.

FIRST GIGS: I started out as the lead singer of a band and I was kicked-out of that band within the year in 7th grade. My first paying gigs were with my high school band, This Side Up. We played a few bars around the Chicago suburbs performing mostly terrible original music. Our guitarist couldn’t really solo so I had to take most of the solos, so that made me focus on improving that part of my skill set early on. Once in college, I had a band called Stomper Bob & the 4x4s that played clubs all around South Bend to moderate success. We played slightly better originals and covers, and I didn’t have to take all of the solos.

MUSICAL INFLUENCES: My musical influences are pretty diverse. Growing up, I loved Debussy, Beethoven, Scott Joplin, Ramsey Lewis, Metallica, the King’s Singers, and Chuck Leavell. I was also listening to bands like Queen, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and even discovered Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in high school. Once I arrived in college, I started diving into the Miles Davis catalog. I became obsessed with many of the musicians in Miles’ bands- Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea to name a few. 

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: Today I still listen to a huge variety of music: Can, Mogwai, Bill Frisell, Joaquin des Prez, Stax compilations, Anomalie, Snarky Puppy, Between the Buried and Me, Daft Punk, Barr Brothers, Taj Mahal and Field Music come to mind. I like listening to very chill vocal or piano music like Voces8 or Claude Debussy when traveling, but I also spend a lot of time reviewing Umphrey’s McGee concerts to critically analyze our playing. And of course any time we’re working on new material in the studio, I’m constantly listening to that stuff to make sure the parts I’ve created are what I want in our music.

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MY BIG BREAK: I’m not sure I’ve ever really had a big break, as we started Umphrey’s McGee back in college in 1998 and have slowly built our audience by playing live shows all over the country for 20 years. We’re up to about 2,400 concerts we’ve played total, so it’s really about hard work and persistence. If there was any big break for our band, I would probably point to our show at the first Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, TN in 2002. We had been playing 300-500 person bars and clubs to that point and suddenly there were 10,000 people staring back at us at Bonnaroo. That certainly put us on a bigger national stage for many music fans.

LATEST PROJECTS: Umphrey’s McGee just released our 11th studio album it’s not us on our own label, Nothing Too Fancy Music on January 12th. The material covers a huge swath of diversity, truly representative of many of the different nooks and crannies we’ve explored as a band throughout our 20 years together. It’s been very well received by both fans and critics, which is not the easiest feat in the 21st century. I’ve also been performing 5-6 solo piano concerts each year for the past couple years, focusing on my own arrangements of Umphrey’s music, some classical pieces and other solo music. I’ve even sung some lead vocals at these shows, which has been a fun challenge for me. I’m always exploring different one off projects as well as I think that helps expand my sonic palette. I’m on my way to Denver right now to play with Supernatural Beings, featuring Kris & myself from UM, Hash the bassist from Thievery Corporation and Marcus Rezak, a killer versatile guitarist who played in Digital Tape Machine with me. In April I have a short midwest stint with Kyle Hollingsworth, String Cheese Incident’s keyboardist, where we’ll be playing with his band. I also have a side project called Tauking McGee with some of the members of UM and an outstanding NYC band Tauk. And last but not least, I love playing with the Everyone Orchestra which is a rotating cast of musicians with a an improvisational director, Matt Butler. It’s an all improv show that ends up sounding more composed that you would think. Finally, I’ve been writing a book about music but have not made an official announcement about it yet so will have to hold back any further details for the moment!

FAVORITE KEYBOARDS AND WHY: My favorite keyboards to play live vary depending on the setting. In general, I prefer analog gear to digital recreations as tone means a lot to me. With Umphrey’s, I’d choose a Fender Rhodes, Minimoog Voyager and Hammond B3 Organ as my three favorite instruments to play. The Rhodes has so much versatility as an instrument & once a distortion pedal is introduced it takes on a completely different voice in the band. The Moog can provide malleable leads in addition to bleeps, bloops and filter sweeps so it’s very useful as both a lead and textural instrument. Finally, the B3 can be soulful or crunchy and dirty... sometimes all three at once! For a band like Umphrey’s McGee with two guitarists the B3 can often provide a powerful harmonic bedrock. Outside of UM, a Steinway concert grand is hard to beat. When your finger hits a key, whose hammer then strikes a string.... the acoustic piano reflects the most human nuances of keyboard performance and for that reason it will always be my ultimate favorite for its expressiveness.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? Umphrey’s McGee’s West coast tour is coming up in March. We’ll be hitting Aspen, Salt Lake City, Missoula, Seattle, Portland, Tahoe, San Francisco, LA & San Diego. Our west coast tours in March are always a blast for me because I can mix in my next favorite hobby, skiing, into tour. It’s important to stay active and healthy on the road, skiing energizes & inspires me in ways not much else can. The views, the freedom to blaze your own trail… there are some similarities with playing improvisational music!

ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Play with others as much as you can. Try to find players that are better than you to play with, you’ll learn more. Work on your listening and interval training so that you can identify what someone else is playing as quickly as possible. Learn how to read music, it will only help you. Learn at least some music theory. Listen to and transcribe your heroes’ solos…. and not just on your instrument. Find a teacher that pushes you to improve while also expanding your love for music. Practicing at home by yourself is important especially in the beginning, but don’t practice in ways that you would never play live. Put yourself out there and meet other people in the music business. Make sure you find a good manager who will represent you well. Finally, be open-minded, patient and generally a nice person at a gig and you will get further. Treat others how you want to be treated. And have fun playing music…. it’s your job to help inspire others!

For more information, visit http://www.umphreys.com