Tom Abbs & Frequency Response: Conscription (2003)
Chances are any sort of artistic enterprise that operates outside the mainstream relies on word of mouth for its survival. Grass roots conscription has been integral to creative improvised music since its beginnings. Bassist/tubaist Tom Abbs knows this truism first hand, having been a founding father of Jump Arts, a non-profit enclave of artists and musicians that seeks to foster free expression by operating on its own terms.
As it turns out, the group is but one of the pokers Abbs has in his personal bonfire of industry. Frequency Response, an ensemble made up of colleagues both established and up and coming, is another. As the band’s CIMP debut suggests, they’re still growing as a group, but they already have engaging things to say.
Abbs elaborates on the sources of inspiration for the music in his portion of the liner notes. Finding the current state of world affairs vexing, he translates his frustrations directly into the compositions, most of which rely heavily on improvisation. Track titles also embody this overarching feeling of anomie, painting pictures in cold mathematical terms.
Settles and Lee are likely new surnames to most listeners. Lee is a regular employee at the Downtown Music Gallery, a NYC improv fan watering hole, and an accomplished cellist. Particulars on Settles are more difficult to come by, but his tone on tenor, a dry, rustling voice that alternates between parched cries and sirocco-sized gusts, fits the dour, recalcitrant mood of many of the pieces. Taylor’s open-ended drumming and versatile use of small percussion adds to the rhythmic tension, darkening the mood several more degrees.
The balance of strings against reed and drums might suggest a chamber style approach in instrumentation, and the band does evidence these leanings. But there’s also a bellicose undercurrent at odds with the commonly associated calm of such an approach. Abbs' racing, inveterate bass line on “Redundant Triangulation” embodies this sort of visceral tack. Following the leader’s lead, Lee’s meliasmic scribbles and the torrential push of Taylor’s traps taunt Settles into an excoriating barrage of reed chortles and snorts.
Other pieces pack equally potent punches. The title track builds from a syncopated series of layered beats born on Taylor’s toms, rims and vibes. Abbs sounds enormous, tugging out a throbbing ostinato that Settles flutters against in a melancholy intonation of the anchoring theme. The remainder of the piece spools out in a shuffling march, notched by nimble detours into freeform interplay.
Abbs and Lee engage in tandem assault on their respective fingerboards during the duplicitous “Dichotomy” and exhibit a similar braiding of vertigo inducing lines on the opening of “Diametric Escalation.” The closing “Reconciled Dissolution” serves as summary capstone. The piece illustrates Lee’s skills at harnessing high harmonics through a prefatory confetti shower of somber arco ribbons that eventual unite with a cadential foundation hewn by Taylor’s snare and Abb’s oompa tuba. As a bandleader, composer and organizer Abbs may be comparatively new to the scene, but the results herein suggest that he’s going to remain a creative contender for years to come.
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Track Listing: Redundant Triangulation/ Diametric Escalation/ Conscription/ Turbulence/ Dichotomy/ Hypertension/ Anti-Torpidity/ Reconciled Dissolution.
Personnel: Tom Abbs- bass, tuba; Brian Settles- tenor saxophone, flute; Okkyung Lee- cello; Chad Taylor- drums, vibes. Recorded: April 21 & 22, 2003, Rossie, NY.