The Back-Talk Organ Trio at Le Petit Chicago

Mark Sabbatini BY

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Don Cummings is a glacial geologist by day, making the Canadian's night job as a jazz organist of considerable interest to a reviewer who can (really) see the flowing masses of ice from the back yard.

On the other hand, Cummings says his work focuses on "groundwater resources and mineral resource exploration," so he's not getting any favoritism here.

Fortunately, Cummings' prowess on the Hammond A100 is solid enough that environmentalists and entrepreneurs can probably spend an evening focusing on his gig without starting a brawl. Among his current projects is leading The Back-Talk Organ Trio, which played four weekly gigs in January of 2011 at Ottawa's Le Petit Chicago club that are available as free downloads at the Internet Archive.

It's a gig that's been played a million times: two sets of mostly—and modestly—known tunes by musicians who, like a one-night stand, leave listeners feeling fulfilled or vaguely empty at the end of the night. The trio scores here, catching the attention of the casual bar-hopper with a comfortingly attractive first impression and stimulating that interest by expanding into clever dialogue that doesn't stray into tackiness or the bizarre.

Cummings, in his mid-30s, despite a publicity photo apparently from his teens, is described as "the busiest Hammond B3 player in Ottawa" in a Jan. 9, 2011 article in The Ottawa Citizen (the A100 is essentially a twin instrument). For his trio he recruited Chris Swain, a guitarist he has played with for more than 15 years, including recently as part of The Hammerheads , a '70s-style funk group. The other contributor is drummer Mike Essoudry Octet, the most prolific of the trio, with recordings ranging from ambient jazz to his ethnic groove group Mash Potato Mashers.

"I was really turned on by Mike's stuff, the original things he's been writing lately," Cummings said in a video interview with Ottawa Jazz Scene, explaining they met through a mutual acquaintance.

Cummings said Essoudry's background is largely in jazz and Swain's in R&B, an ideal difference in influences for his concept of the trio. "The idea behind the repertoire is a reflection of everything I'm into in music," he said, citing influences such as Ray Charles and modern gospel. It's "all sort of focused around that organ combo kind of thing coming out of jazz clubs in the '50s and '60s."

The trio's opening gig at Le Petit Chicago, on January 3, 2011 features about 20 songs by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Marvin Gaye and Oliver Nelson, plus two originals by Cummmings. Nearly all are five to six minutes long, an indication of their accessibility, with only one clocking in at a shade more than eight minutes. Sound quality is good enough to fit without distinction into a mix of CDs in a casual listening environment. But as an unedited performance, there are also a few interludes of dead-air, most of which can be resolved by deleting tracks with names like "pee break #2." Quips about one-night stands aside, the audience at the club is mostly swingers of the musical type.

"It's a small tight little club and you're sort of in the face of the people in the audience," Cummings said in the video interview. "I find it to be a hip little place ... It's a different audience than we're used to seeing in many of the clubs. It's a younger crowd and they're really here to listen to the music."

The opening "Blues For J," by Jimmy Smith, is something of a listener's Rorschach test: mild enough in pacing and volume for whatever drinking crowd exists to keep testing their chat-up lines on each other, while promising enough for the listening crowd with a liberal sprinkling of understated deviances from the familiar melody and comfort-food repeating solo riffs. The other two lead-off songs, Grant Green's "Green Jeans" and Lonnie Smith's "Back Track," are similar. Swain provides the lead-off voicing and clearly enunciated solos in brief note-at-a-time phrases, with a clean tone similar to Burrell's. Cummings' follow-ups lean more toward chords and funk, although they're restrained in the early going. Essoudry provides the essential energy, with highly active (and interactive) backings and fills, thick with cymbals and snares, without ever seriously ramping up the volume to assert himself.

The minimal "As One" is an unremarkable breather that misleads about where the evening is headed, as Swain mostly plucks a slow melody for a few minutes (there's also a reminder this is an unedited recording, with 30 seconds of dead air at the end). Cummings' first original, "Oh Nelson!," gets things back on track with a familiar-though-it's-new carefree hook. That's followed by his taking the lead role and really torquing up the funk for the first time, with The Meters' "Fire On The Bayou," aided again by Essoudry's liberal embellishments.

Stragglers in the mating crowd probably weren't feeling better about their diminished odds by the time the band performs Jack McDuff's "Silk 'n Soul," which can't help but distract conversations. Cummings and Essoudry both get full-tilt funk solos to a frenetic rhythm riff by Swain. The high-end of the pace is heard elsewhere during the evening, with an arrangement of Marvin Gaye's "You" that makes it sound like it was born to be played by organ trio; a rapid-fire "Wade In The Water" (ditto and probably the night's busiest tune); a finger-exhausting four-minute burn on Burrell's "Suzy"; and the encore, "Time Is Tight," by Booker T. and the MGs.

Plenty of variety remains in the set, however, with slow-to mid-tempo tunes generally alternating with more lively ones. What's also evident is more stretching out of soloing approaches and backing rhythms as they settle into a comfortable groove. Cummings' compositional vision of "New Orleans" is closer to Dr. John's (with a visit by Wes Montgomery) than Jelly Roll Morton's. Ray Charles' aptly-named "Hard Times" is plodding minimalism, where Cummings and Swain wring plenty of grit from their relatively few notes. The pre-encore "Send It On," by current-day neo-soul performer D'Angelo, lingers in reflective meditation, nourishing the crowd while obviously leaving them wanting the gig to conclude in a more upbeat vein (which, as noted, does).

The set lists for the other night's performances don't vary much, until the final two appearances on January 24 and 31, where captivating and not-entirely-expected arrangements of songs such as "Afro Blue" and Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" are found (on the January 31 gig in particular). Downloading the entire month's performances is an easy recommendation, however, especially given the trio's lack of official releases as of this writing.

Tracks: Intro; Blues For J; Green Jeans; Backtrack; As One; Oh Nelson!; Fire On The Bayou; Banter; Stolen Moments; Silk 'n Soul; Midnight Special; Latona; Suzy; Que Pasa; You; Hard Times; New Orleans; Telephone; Carrot Cake; Pee break #1; Wade In The Water; Pee break #2; Alamode; Send It On; Call for encore; Time Is Tight.

Personnel: Don Cummings: organ; Chris Swain: guitar; Mike Essoudry: drums.

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