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Published: 2002/11/23
by Mike Greenhaus

Common Sense – Joel Cummins

self-released
At first it seemed a little strange that Joel Cummins would issue a "solo"
album. Keyboardist for Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee, Cummins and his bandmates
have spent the last few years on the road, tightening their largely
instrumental ensemble and securing their name in the world of
improvisational music. A band of equals clearly on the rise, Umphrey’s McGee
are just beginning to make their name as a group. But, upon first listen, it
makes perfect sense why Cummins would choose to spend time on a
side-project.

A collection of 12 mostly improvisational instrumental tracks, Common
Sense is a carefully constructed footnote in Umphrey’s McGee quickly
expanding library. While Umphrey’s McGee coats their jam-rock with elements
of jazz and electronica, Common Sense fully explores these sounds,
braking away from the guitar-bass-drums-keyboard blueprint that grounds the
quintet. These songs are loose and experimental, placing considerable
emphasis on Cummins’ wide range of keyboards.
"Intellivince" is a synthesizer experiment set thirty years in the future,
with some Fender Rhodes and Roland organ thrown in for good measure. "Leave
it Alone" is a grand ballad, featuring acoustic piano and a taste of
Cummins’ standard jazz influence. The organ heavy "Summer in Sheboygan" uses
some nice multi-tracking to allow Cummins to duel with himself, as his fat
organ lines mesh with his hard piano solos. More straightforward jazz tracks
like "The Soviet" and the "Next Medium," featuring only Cummins, are full
departures from the jazz-fusion Umphrey’s McGee incorporates into their
sound and would be more at home in Carnegie Hall than at Bonnaroo. But, just
one track away, the trippy "Triple Wide" is a complex slice of trance-fusion
that includes both a drum machine and a jazz guitar solo. Another purely
Cummins song, "Someone Found My Body" breaks away from traditional solo
piano work and uses a Roland JP-8000 and an acoustic piano to create a
three-minute ethereal jam.
Though Common Sense is clearly Cummins’ vision, his bandmates also use the
disc as a chance to experiment. Besides three completely unaccompanied cuts,
Cummins is backed by at least one of his bandmates of each track. Umphrey’s
McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger plays drums and bass on the first half of the
album and co-wrote more than 2/3 of the album’s tracks. Percussionist Andy
Farag sits in on two cuts, playing the shaker and adding some groovebox to
the space-age "The Triple Wide." Michael Mirro, Umphrey’s drummer, also
shows his talents, playing the Roland JP-8000 and his trademark kit on the
video-game sounding "In Violation of Yes", which he co-wrote with Cummins.
But in the end, "Common Sense" is clearly Cummins’ work and the key man’s
solos are the highlight of each and every track. Cummins also produced the
disc, proving his credibility as an arranger and sequencer.
A fine experiment, "Common Sense" is also somewhat flawed. Though each song
is original, they are also redundant, using similar organ lines and synth
sounds on several tracks. With the longest track only clocking in at just
under five minutes, each slice of improvisation seems to peak just as it
gets going, only to quickly fade out after a few minutes. But, in general,
Common Sense is a finely constructed album great for late night drives and
early morning coffees.

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