Five questions for Don Cummings
By Peter Hum, Ottawa Citizen, January 10, 2011
Don Cummings — who I hope will forgive the following pun — knows a thing or two about rocking steady. For one thing, he’s a glacial geologist. As well, he’s the busiest Hammond B3 player in Ottawa, and he’s been grooving mightily in recent weeks with the Rev. Ernie Cox, drummer Mike Essoudry’s sextet, and his own Back-Talk Organ Trio. That group, which features Essoudry and guitarist Chris Swain, plays Petit Chicago every Monday night this month, and can be heard in the YouTube clip at the bottom of this post. But first, check out these five answers from Cummings.
Photo at right by Scott Doubt:
1) Tell me about your day job and how you balance it with your musical pursuits.
I’m a glacial geologist. I work on groundwater resources and mineral resource exploration throughout Canada. Except for a brief hiatus in the late 1990′s, when I moved to Montreal to play music exclusively, I’ve always done geology and music simultaneously. I really benefit from doing both. If I get bummed out with music, I pour myself full-tilt into geology, and vice versa.
2) How did you come to play the organ?
When I was a teenager, my father worked across the street from a video store that rented CDs. One of the first CDs I rented from them had a photo of a guy holding a big hollow-body guitar. I liked the photo (it was Wes Montgomery, though I didn’t know it at the time). I brought it home, stuck it on, and was completely blown away by Jimmy Smith, who accompanied Wes on most of the cuts. By that point my uncle, a local jazz piano player, had taught me the blues scale, so I was fooling around with stuff, but Jimmy Smith blew my teenage mind. I couldn’t go back to piano — it was all organ after that.
3) Who are some of your musical heroes, and why?
My uncle, Jim Cummings, inspired me early on. He’s a great piano player who still blows me away. His playing lies somewhere between Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, which is a musical place I really like. I find Vitas Paukstaitis, an Ottawa- and New Orleans-based bass player, pretty inspirational. He taught me a lot about playing early on, and especially about attitude towards the craft. (Vitas, if you read this go stuff yourself.) I get a lot from working with Chris Swain, a local guitar player. Max Sansalone, a drummer I played with in Montreal, taught me a lot about how drums should work in a band. I know these people personally, and I see the dedication they have to their craft, which is why they’re sort of my musical heroes.
4) What are some of your desert-island recordings, and why are they significant for you?
It’s very hard to narrow down the list. I listen to everything, really — reggae, country, blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, both new and old. Right now I’m totally into a Motown album Vitas turned me on to, The Ruffin Brothers I Am My Brother’s Keeper. The organ albums I keep returning to include Big John Patton’s Let Em Roll, Larry Young’s Unity, Jimmy Smith’s The Cat and Fourmost, and my favourite “modern” organ jazz album, Larry Goldings’s Light Blue. The Roaring Lion’s Sacred 78s calypso cuts are mindblowing, as is the Bollywood Funk compilation. Anything by Ray Charles in the ;50s could easily be on the list. My favourite albums from the past 10 years might be D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Bonnie Prince Billy’s Master And Everyone. If I could bring a YouTube clip of Twinkie Clark singing and accompanying herself on organ, I’d bring that too. I’d probably die swimming to shore because of all this junk.
5) What musical goals do you have for 2011?
I don’t really have any long-term musical goals. I just try to sit down at my instrument and improve on a daily basis.
Back Talk Organ Trio +1 dishes up Southern soul
By Lynn Saxberg, Ottawa Citizen, October 10, 2012
If you have a hankering for sweet Southern soul, Ottawa’s Back Talk Organ Trio +1 will not only dish out a satisfying helping, but also spice it up with a twist of modern R & B.
The band’s jazzy instrumental style is centred on the grits ’n’ gravy groove of Don Cummings’ electric Hammond B3 organ, combined with Chris Swain’s crisp electric guitar, Ian Babb’s evocative saxophone and the impeccable drumming of Mike Essoudry. Their debut album, Black Flower, is being celebrated on Friday with a gig at the Mercury Lounge.
One of the first tracks to be revealed is a cover of the 1980s dance hit, Poison, remade without vocals but heavy on the organ, so it sounds like a vintage slab of soul-infused jazz. It echoes the classic organ-combo sound of the 1950s and ’60s, a musical era that had a big influence on Cummings.
“That’s where it’s at for me,” he says, citing B3 pioneer Jimmy Smith as an early idol . “It starts and ends there. When you think about lush orchestration mixed with heavy-hitting rhythm, to me, that’s what organ combos embrace. They came into music at a great time, when jazz and soul combined to make that heavy hitting sound.”
Cummings and his bandmates have years of experience playing music in various configurations, including a stint (for three of them) in the late-’90s Montreal funk outfit Bullfrog and ongoing participation in the Hammerheads. After moving back to Ottawa in the mid-2000s, Cummings was intrigued by the potential of his instrument.
“The format is very flexible so you can incorporate any influence into it, really,” he says, pointing to the example of Booker T and the MG’s. “He took a lot of the modern pop songs and incorporated them in, which is essentially what we’re trying to do today with more modern influences and modern rhythms.”
With Essoudry in the lineup, they tried their hand at writing as a group and came up with enough material for an album, along with a pair of cover tunes (Bel Biv Devoe’s Poison and D’Angelo’s Send it On). Working around their day jobs, the disc was recorded in Cummings’ living room.
Although the album is instrumental, the group is often joined on stage by R&B singer Iyono Ede, who’s known for her contribution to the Hammerheads. She will be featured in the second half of Friday’s CD-release gig.