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Music Review: Umphrey’s McGee – Jimmy Stewart 2007

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One of the major draws of Umphrey's McGee is their ability to play on their toes in a live setting. The extended improv sections of songs provide opportunities for the band members to showcase not only their instrumental prowess, but their mastery of so many music forms, like prog-rock, jazz, pop, metal, reggae, funk…even country. Oftentimes these turn into what Umphrey's McGee calls a "Jimmy Stewart."

So what exactly is a "Jimmy Stewart?" I don't know why they named them after the famous actor, but it's a unique way that Umphrey's McGee creates music on the spot in a live setting. Typically they use the instrumental interlude of a song as a launching point, and a band member will signal the rest of the band with an unspoken visual cue to signal what to do next. For example, a smile might indicate a major key while a sad face could direct the band to a minor key.

In many cases, these Jimmy Stewarts wind up spawning new, fully formed compositions, such as "Intentions Clear," "In The Kitchen," and "Bridgeless."

Here are some explanations of what is a "Jimmy Stewart" by band members themselves:

"…a bit of music sounds meant to sound like written music…supposed to be 'in the moment'"
Umphrey's McGee Jimmy Stewart 2007
"(We) make it sound not like a jam but a body of music"

"One person can be the shepherd and the rest have to be sheep"

"An exercise in writing with the band on stage in front of a crowd"

This is what, in essence, sets apart Umphrey's from the major jam bands who've come before them; those cues keep the players on the same page even as they're freely improvising, a clear distinction from the aimless hippie jams of old.

Umphrey's live performances are savored by fans everywhere, and to accommodate their loyal minions, the band have regularly released podcasts of their live performances. Up to two 75-minutes sets a month for 20,000 subscribers, in fact.

These podcasts have now been supplemented with a collection of Jimmy Stewarts performed in concerts throughout last year. This assemblage has even been issued on limited-issue CD's that have been distributed last month at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, as well as the band's online store. It's also available digitally via the iTunes Store and UMLive.net.

Jimmy Stewart 2007, the name of this special-release collection, takes those improv portions of songs and edits them down into their own tracks, 25 in all. They are logically labeled by the name of the song the Jimmy Stewart was spun off from, followed by the date and location of the performance. For example, "The Crooked One – 4.19.07 – Buffalo, NY." The tracks all run together, so sometimes the edit produces some smooth transitions, and sometimes it's abrupt.

They're almost all instrumental; some inconsequential vocals finally appears on the 18th track. For not having much to go on in advance, these tracks are nicely varied and sometimes go through several chord progression and tempo changes within the same Jimmy Stewart. Some of the cuts are more interesting than others, but none sound they're just meandering. The better ones to my ears include "E.T.I – 05.05.07 – Dallas, TX," "JaJunk – 7.19.07 – Detroit Lakes, MN," and "Higgins – 12.29.07 – Chicago, IL," which contains some nifty interlocking guitar work between Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss.

All told, it has much the same feel as Frank Zappa's Shut Up And Play Your Guitar albums, expect instead of hearing one guy wank away on the guitar, you get to listen to the entire band create collectively. Maybe that's still not enough to warrant as many listens as a studio release like The Bottom Half CD we covered last year, but it might be far and above the most compelling listen of full-on improv from any rock band working today.

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  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Funny that you mention Zappa because I could have sword I read an interview where UM said they use his musical-cue signals.

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    I think I’ve too read somewhere where they cite Zappa as an influence and their method does remind me a lot of his.