Interview with Blues guitarist Albert Cummings. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Albert Cummings: – I grew up in one of the most scenic towns in Massachusetts called Williamstown. It is rich with history and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been including all of my travels. My early interest in music came from my father who played guitar, fiddle and oddly enough “the saw” (this was an average carpenter hand saw that he would play with a violin bow). My dad played in a band before I was born and while I was growing up he and his bandmates would get together to play music at picnics or parties. I can remember thinking how awesome it was that my dad could play guitar. I always wanted to play the guitar but didn’t have access to a small guitar so I had to wait until I was fifteen or so to be able to get my hand around the neck. I began playing trumpet in grade school and eventually played it thru high school. When I was twelve, a friend of my dad offered me a try at a five-string banjo and it fit perfectly in my hands. I took off like a rocket on it and started to cut my teeth on a stringed instrument. I never imagined playing music as a career and began my life as a fourth-generation carpenter/contractor. Finally, when I was twenty seven years old I was encouraged by friends to play along with a band at a friend’s wedding. I reluctantly complied and had a life changing experience. Something happened to me at that moment and I never looked back. After that day I began playing guitar with a friend then I started a band and the next thing I knew I was working towards a new dream of being a performing musician.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
AC: – My favorite quote of all time is by Oscar Wilde. It is: Be yourself because everyone else is taken. I have lived my entire life thinking this way. Guitar has been no different. I don’t care to be anyone else when it comes to the guitar. I just want to be me. If I am just me, then I am automatically unique because we are all one of q kind. I only want to be a better player today than I was yesterday. To do this I have to be able to express who I am thru my guitar. I want to be able to communicate with people thru my guitar. I want people to feel what I am feeling thru the guitar. Lots of guitarists try to impress people by playing what they know instead of what they feel. This isn’t interesting to me. I want people to feel what I am feeling.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
AC: – I wish I had a better answer for you on this one. Other than a few minor finger exercises to warm up I don’t really have any routines. I sometimes will go weeks without touching a guitar. Its only when I’m touring and playing that I start to see great strides ahead. Harmonies are something that happen naturally while playing with others. I am very weak when it comes to musical theory and I try to keep it that way. I believe that if You’re thinking- You’re stinking. If you are thinking about what you are going to play, you aren’t feeling it. Right or wrong that’s how I approach it.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
AC: – I have change immensely over the years. I think this is a good sign. I listen to some of my early recording and wish that I could go back and change them. I look at this as positive improvement. If I would listen to things years later and not want to change anything it would mean to me that I hadn’t evolved at all. I think I get better with music every time I play it. I have grown as a person as well as a player so I hope my music changes along with myself! I think the largest thing that has changed is my ability to be more honest with what I’m playing. I am still guilty of over playing but I think my best moments come from when I don’t overplay. Less is more!!
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
AC: – When It comes to the studio or my live gigs I want everything to be spontaneous. I rarely use a set list when performing live. I like to read the crowd and feel what’s happening in the room. I keep trying to experiment and hear how the audience responds. Then I give them what I feel is working. When It comes to the studio I like to go in with the basic songs written on my acoustic. I love the creative process of having the songs come alive in the studio. While this sometimes is frustrating it makes for a very spontaneous environment and I find that I work the best when I feel pressure.
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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
AC: – This is such a great question and taps right into my thoughts about song writing! To simplify I think you have to have one or the other inside of a song for it to be relatable. But when you can have both you really relate to the listener. I’ve heard good songs that could have been written by a four-year-old that were delivered with soul. End result- the song has interest. I’ve heard songs that were written by extremely educated people but don’t have any soul. End result- a boring song. Of course, this is just my opinion and taste is in the ear of the listener. If I had to choose one or the other I would lean towards the soul. I personally like music with soul and find it much more enjoyable. Soul is a much harder thing to express than your intellect. It goes back to what I was saying about playing what you know verses playing what you feel. You won’t have soul coming out if you’re only playing what you know. But it can flow freely if you can play what you feel. It takes a lot of self-confidence to be able to expose your inner feelings to the people but when you do it the reward is unmatched.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
AC: – I think I may have answered this already but I’m happy to elaborate on it. I had a private conversation with Mr BB King about this one night as we sat back stage. Mr. King stated that as an entertainer our job is to entertain the people. When we walk on stage we are there to do a job. Its not the audience’s job to entertain us. Its so true. I think people can feel when you’re being real and honest with what you’re doing on stage. If they feel this they will be more receptive to you because they know you are about pleasing them. What’s beautiful about this is that when the audience is happy they send back a positive energy which then makes me want to play better. It goes right back to the old saying- “you get what you give”. The more you give your audience the more they give you and it grows and grows. That’s what makes a good show for me and the audience.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
AC: – Too many to list!
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in blues when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
AC: – This is certainly a wide range topic but I’ll try to answer. With music, young people are into what’s popular. I don’t think people in today’s world discover any type of meaningful music until they enter their thirties. Popular music today is more of an assembly of sounds than it is of melodies or actual music. I don’t mean to sound too old here but its true. Kids especially are drawn to sounds not music. I think the blues is a music that you have to have a little life under your belt before it will speak to you. One thing I do have a strong opinion about from being on the front lines of trying to bring attention to this music is how it is presented. Ask anyone what they first think of when they hear the term blues music and I bet you they will tell you it is depressing. There is a stigma attached to blues that you must have to be depressed to play it. While this certainly can be true if a performer is singing about something that has depressed him or her then if they are doing it right it should feel depressing. However, if someone is singing about how good they feel then the listener should also feel that too. To me Blues music is an expression of your feelings no matter what they are. You can be sad, happy, mad, depressed or anything you want as a performer but whatever it is you better be honest with it so your audience will feel it. That’s the Blues to me. Now on the subject of how to get young people interested, let me offer this. Maybe its not so much about getting them interested as it is just not turning them off in the first place. What I mean is some people believe that you can’t change the Blues in any way and that it has to be played exactly how they played it in 1940 or 1950 or whatever date you want to pick. This is a fine opinion but it doesn’t help advance the genre in anyway. I’m speaking as a soldier on the front lines playing to thousands of people night after night. If I told someone they unequivocally had to drive around in a car from 1940 or 1950 verses drive a modern-day car they would probably not be in favor of this. A few car collectors may think this is fun but the majority won’t. To me this is the same with Blues. Are these same people upset that Muddy Waters and BB King plugged in an electric guitar and started playing blues classics? I would hope not but that’s the message they send when they say the blues can’t be changed. The music has to presented to a modern audience in a modern way that will introduce them with possibility vs chase them away with sounds that aren’t pleasing to the modern ear. I love old blues more than anyone but I understand how someone will instantly change the radio channel when they hear a scratchy old record from 1920 on a Saturday night when they want to party. There is a time and place for everything and this all has to be considered. I have lots of kids come to my shows just as I have a lot of seniors. It is enjoyable to watch them all together sharing time enjoying music. I certainly understand people wanting to give history lessons about the blues and its background but you have to hook the fish before you can reel it in. The right lure has to be cast in front of them. If we can bring in new fans of the music then they can learn all about where it came from but if we can’t even bring them in we certainly aren’t’ going to be able to force them to learn it.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
AC: – I think he was spot on. Its almost as if you knew the exact questions to ask! This is exactly how I feel. From that first experience to every gig I play today. I feel as though I tune in to my spirit when I perform. I’ve never considered this nor did I know that Mr. Coltrane said this but I think he’s right. I have literally woken up on stage and not know where I am. There is no drug or alcohol or anything else in life that can compare to being at peace while playing music.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
AC: – I think I would change how radio is controlled. I’d like people be able to legitimately vote on what they hear. There would be a simple thumbs up or thumbs down like Pandora so everyone’s radio reflected what they wanted to hear. This would all be cumulatively tracked. Hopefully this would help get a real time sense of what is really popular vs what people are being told is popular. True talent that may never have had a chance in today’s political musical arena could have a chance at bringing their craft to the world.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
AC: – I am constantly finding new music. Once I find someone I like, I tend to listen to everything I can find by that artist. I like anyone who can grab my attention and hold it. You can imagine from my previous answers, that I like someone who is original and not trying to be anyone but themselves.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
AC: – My main message is a common bond thru music. I believe that music is the one thing that people can come together and enjoy together regardless of their personal thoughts or beliefs. I love the love that is felt when a crowd is together and I am together with the crowd. There is not a better feeling!
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
AC: – I’m completely stumped here. My first reaction is to go back in time to a place where there was dignity and respect in how people treated each other. It doesn’t seem that this was too long ago. I remember this clearly in my life so I guess I would only go back a few decades. I know I’m sounding old fashioned here but I’d like my sons to experience what it was like to live before the internet.
JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
AC: – I have two: First would be has anyone else you’ve interviewed had similar thoughts to mine when it comes to being yourself as an artist? Secondly- This is actually a request for advice more than it is for a reader. Do you have any ideas on how I can attract a legitimate agency who can help me tour more in Europe? I have performed in 14 countries so far and I absolutely love to play in Europe. Every time I have been there I get an overwhelming response but unfortunately the person who was helping me get started has passed away and I am looking for much needed help.
JBN – SS: – 1. Of course, during the past 12 years since I founded and edited this website, initially the Facebook group, I have had many interesting and unique interlocutors from both Jazz and Blues musicians.
2. I am the one you are looking for in Europe. I organize Jazz and Blues festivals in Eastern European countries, I am the producer of many musicians, I organize concerts.
JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
AC: – First of all, I want to thank you for asking me these questions. I am honored that you have. This is a long hill to climb but it is opportunities like this that allow me to gain ground. Thank you so much Simon! Please let me know if there is anything you need from me or anything I can do for you!
JBN – SS: – Sound good, but only lie good! You didn’t even want to cooperate with my website and promote your CD, get a CD review. You only found free space and gave a long but interesting answer. In the end, I had to cut the parts about the new CD.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan