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Interviews

Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

By Published: June 23, 2008

I felt completely released from playing changes or having to play time. I felt like the bird that took its first flight

Tom AbbsBassist, composer and film-maker Tom Abbs has enlivened not only the ensembles in which he has played, but also the New York City free jazz scene with his brand of musical activism, through the Jump Arts Foundation. An accomplished instrumentalist on tuba as well as bass, he has collaborated with downtown stalwarts Daniel Carter, Steve Swell, Cooper-Moore, Jemeel Moondoc, Assif Tsahar, Andrew Lamb and Warren Smith among many others.



He boasts a distinctive compositional conception manifest through his adventurous Frequency Response grouping, increasingly allied to a personal visual lexicon. As if this wasn't enough, Abbs has become general manager of a resurgent ESP Disk, overseeing reissues of the classic catalogue alongside an array of mouthwatering new releases. The unification of these different streams has reached an apogee in the co-operative trio Yuganaut, whose first disc is out on ESP.



Chapter Index

  1. Yuganaut
  2. Frequency Response
  3. Background and History
  4. Creative Improvised Music and the Downtown Scene
  5. Playing Bass and Tuba Simultaneously
  6. Living as a Creative Musician in New York City
  7. The Transcendentalists
  8. Triptych Myth and Cooper-Moore
  9. Kidney Donation and MP Landis




Yuganaut

All About Jazz: One of your current projects is the collective Yuganaut with Steve Rush and Geoff Mann. Rush's use of synthesizers has provoked comparisons with Sun Ra, but that is just one aspect of the group. Each player is a multi instrumentalist and what characterizes the band for me is the continual switching between instruments, evoking a sound much bigger than a trio. How did Yuganaut come about?

Tom Abbs: I was on tour with Geoff Mann and Steve Swell: the New York BrassWood Trio. We have a couple of releases on CIMP. We were on a tour of the northeast and the mid-west, a circuit I've been doing for a couple of years, and Steve Rush, in addition to being the professor of new music at the University of Michigan, books shows at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Mich. They have an amazing jazz Mass, where he plays Sun Ra and Coltrane compositions for the church service. They also have a performance series and so we played at that performance series. I met Steve and he was doing all this amazing stuff like the jazz service. It's a pretty rare thing to have Coltrane and Sun Ra as part of a church service.



We stayed at his house. We must have gone through there three or four times before we started playing together. I heard him playing and I really loved his music. Geoff and I became really good friends with him and started talking about what Steve does. Steve is one of the few people who plays MicroMoog and some of the other more primitive synthesizers. He teaches the Electronic Music Ensemble at the University of Michigan. We thought that doing a band that had all these really diverse sounds would be really exciting. Of course Steve also plays a lot of toys like the elk horn, birdcalls and things like that. He's just really an eclectic character, as you can imagine. And Geoff and I are both multi instrumentalists, so this band has amazing possibilities.



We did a short tour to start out and recorded a little bit and really saw the possibilities. And since then we've done five or six tours, this one in the spring will be the seventh. We're really close friends, and it's just developed from there. All our diverse interests come together to make the band what it is now.

AAJ: When I listened to Yuganaut's intriguing This Musicship CD, much of it had the feel of collective improvisation, but there was a sense of structure about it which I found hard to pin down. It wasn't until I saw the DVD with the accompanying videos that I realized that you were interpreting graphic scores and that these provided the structures, albeit unusual ones. Is this the normal way of working for this band?

TA: Yeah, we really started out with the video as something that would give the music a different feeling than the traditional thing. We didn't want to have a band that sounded the same as everything else. There's a lot of bands out there in a similar vein, and we wanted something different. A cinematic thing. I was already working with video, as was Geoff, and Steve through the University had worked with a lot of video artists and had put out DVDs of operas he's done, so we were all interested in expanding on those experiences.

Tom Abbs

I was working with these horizontal line structures that flow from right to left, and you can kinda follow them very literally with entrances and hits. They're colored so you get some emotional ideas for the music, and it gives textural ideas and denotes whether there is a rhythm going on or not. It's like a map that has a key that only we know how to read. We started working with these video graphic scores and we showed them to the audience. It was one thing for us to record to them—that's how we recorded "This Musicship, we recorded to these video scores—but when we showed them to the audience when we did live shows, the audience suddenly understood that we aren't just playing free, we aren't just improvising. We're playing a structure and they could see it.



That's something that I feel strongly about. I go to see music a lot and I see free jazz groups that meander and I lose interest because I don't get any sense of what structure there is. Often you see free improvisation that loses its energy or loses its direction. I didn't want that to happen in this group. So not only was the audience in on our direction and structure, but we had this constant anchoring into the score, and it's very time based. So it's different than reading an abstract score. A lot of people write abstract scores with shapes and things, but it's not necessarily time-based. You can play the square for an hour and a half, then move to the circle. But with our scores it was time-based and video, so we knew to play the circle for three minutes and then move on to a different shape or whatnot.



It created this connection with the audience and a connection in the band. We always knew where we were. It slowly developed until we got away from the line scores to actual live action videos. We got into using pedestrian things like riding a bike or more elemental things like using video of fire and water.

AAJ: How does that work with the audience? Are you facing away from the audience or do you have laptop screens?

TA: We actually started out kinda angling the band toward the screen. We have a projector and a screen and we set up in an elongated sort of 'L' shape, so the audience could see everything and we were looking at the screen. And that worked for a while, although we had to crane our necks to see everything. We found that after the show our necks hurt. So eventually we got a couple of monitors, so we had monitors closer to us and we could put the screen at a better viewing angle for the audience, and also we weren't having to crane and stretch our necks to look at the thing all the time.

AAJ: Looking at your DVD (some of which can be found on YouTube) I noticed a range of methods involved, from "Missing Limbs" where there seems to be a direct correlation between the musicians and particular colored shapes, with the musician playing when a pattern is superimposed on his blob, to "Whacked in the Head" where there is a split screen and a graphic score, but also images of vegetation and a fire. Have you been exploring a range of different ways to interact with the video?

TA: Absolutely. What's interesting is that each of us has brought videos to the table. I was definitely into this line score thing, line structures, and then Geoff Mann brought in this video, "Internal/External," which is on the record, and it was him basically riding around Brooklyn on his bike. And we thought "Wow, how do we use this as a graphic score?" Well there is a part of it where it suddenly switches from night time to daytime, so we learned to use visual cues like that to have a feeling change or texture change in the music.



There's another piece, "Marble Screen," which Steve Rush brought in, which is all these Indian marble screens, very psychedelic in a way. He brought in a written composition, and then we used different cues from the visuals to arrange the piece. There's a five-pointed star that comes up and we know that when the star comes up for the second time, then we move to the second theme. We're also really keyed in to the feeling of each video piece. If it's psychedelic we're trying to get into that mood really deeply. So not only doing these literal line structures, but going from the feeling of the video or using the different visual aesthetics. You have those aesthetics carry over into the feeling of the music, and the texture and the density of the music.



So we've created a language within the band of how to deal with pretty much any video. We could play the History Channel even, to the point in our last tour where we did "The Lost World," which is the silent film from 1925. "The Lost World" is a precursor to "Jurassic Park" and things like that, with these monstrous claymation animals. We're using these monsters as cues. Obviously, the monster comes on and it should be a little more tense, a little more fearful in the music.



So we have created a lot of tools in the band, in our arsenal, to deal with different visual cues. I think it is constantly developing. A lot of people have played to silent films, so it's not breaking new ground, but for us as a unit, the way we have all these instruments and the way we deal with things, we're really developing something unique out of our history with video, and in our conversations we definitely have a whole language to talk about it. It's definitely something that inspires us and challenges us.

Tom Abbs

Often we finish a gig playing a video and we think, "The video kicked our asses." We think it was terrible. It's not easy to anticipate what is going to happen visually with the music. So it has really been a challenge and it's pushed us to be better musicians. All of us, I think, would agree on that.

AAJ: I've not come across anyone working in this way in with video in creative improvised music. Has it created interest from other musicians in using similar methods?

TA: There are tons of people who use video with creative music, and of course the tradition is for a pianist to play with silent films. Back before the talkies, in the movie theatres you had a pianist or organist and they are essentially improvising to the films. So that is the tradition we are going from in a lot of ways, especially when we are dealing with silent films. Actually, when Steve Rush was in high school he had a job playing in a theatre on organ with silent films. Essentially these guys were improvising. They would have some set numbers they would do at certain parts, and of course if you played a movie 25 times you definitely fall into more structure. So there is that tradition going way back to the silent film era.



After doing this on a number of tours, we went from playing regular jazz venues, to actually playing in movie houses. So you get a little different audience and local film societies sponsor us.



So that's exciting because you know the avant-garde jazz audience is not that big. They're dedicated but they are not big enough to sustain many careers, so the diversity of audience is definitely one of the major goals in my life. If I could have music that reaches beyond that small audience, longevity and everything else is probably tied with that. And of course our hope, everybody's hope for adventurous music, is that it gets to more people because it does have these healing properties and this wonderful spirituality which we all want to expand. So there is that desire in the band, in Yuganaut, for our audience to be bigger than just the elitist avant-garde audience that there is.

AAJ: What do people make of the music if they come to it without that expectation of what it is going to be like?

TA: Mostly because we have these visual things you can see, especially with the line structures which are very literal, people that don't even like jazz love it. Actually it was one of Steve's relatives, his mother-in-law I think, saw a show, and she didn't know what to make of this improvised music, but because she could see what goes on, she loved it and we have that reaction a lot.



It's very gratifying, because we've all, as avant-garde jazz musicians, done shows where you have an audience that isn't quite the right audience for your music. And you know, it sounds to someone who doesn't know the music to be sort of random sometimes. It sounds like they are just going at it and the audience is thinking; "What's going to happen? Are they just going to keep doing this for an hour?" When it's really experimental you have audience members get up and leave, which is of course a horrible feeling.



But we didn't have this experience with Yuganaut because they have this other thing to attach themselves to and something to anchor their listening. I'm very thankful to have found something to keep people in their seats who aren't quite ready for the music alone. It's like listening to Coltrane's "Ascension" or something when you're just into pop music and you switch right to "Ascension" and you're not going to know how to listen to it....it's going to sound like noise to you.

AAJ: Where did the name Yuganaut come from?

TA: "Yuga" is a time cycle described in Hindu scriptures. Steve is an accomplished Indian singer and has gone to India many times and he has a guru there. So "Yuga" is a time cycle, and "naut" implies the literal meaning as traveler or sailor, as in astronaut of course. We're dealing with these time cycles which relates to these time based pieces, these video pieces that are really dealing with a time train. You can kind of relate it to that.

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Frequency Response

AAJ: Your first two CDs as leader feature a band you call Frequency Response, though the lineup changed a little between your debut on CIMP and the 482 records The Animated Adventures of Knox. Could you say how this band came about? Is it still a functional unit?

TA: I had been playing with Chad Taylor and Brian Settles since we were all back at the New School in NYC in the early 90s. Okkyung Lee and I had a duet project called Dichotomy between 2000 and 2003. Actually the only recording of our duet is on the first Frequency Response record on CIMP [on the track "Dichotomy"]. That was the original quartet. After the first record Brian Settles moved to Washington, D.C. He was supposed to be on the second record but the money to get him back to New York for the recording fell through and I had to get Alex Harding to play his parts. I was really interested in writing for more instruments for the Knox record. I played with Jean Cook in the Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet and I was a huge fan of Oscar Noriega's, so I brought them in to the group.



We had plans to record in the fall of 2006 but instead I ended up donating my kidney that December. We are scheduled to record this summer for Engine records if I can get everybody together. Chad and Okkyung are especially busy.

AAJ: I thought The Animated Adventures of Knox was an excellent album, a real overlooked gem which mainly went under the critical radar, although it did make one best-of-year list. But even the positive reviews I saw didn't get the film which accompanies the music on a separate DVD. You spent a lot of time on the DVD and in the liner notes you suggest it is almost a self portrait. Did you find this lack of appreciation frustrating?

TA: It was hard not to take some of the reviews personally but I learned something important. If you want to get reviews for your experimental film, don't send it to jazz critics. Most of them didn't get it and some outright hated it. I'll admit that at times the DVD is hard to watch, but I have no regrets about how it turned out. It's a film about madness and redemption after all. It's no picnic. I completely believe in the project and I think it stands as some of my most honest work. The band toured the mid-west in 2005 with the film and we actually got great responses from audiences.

AAJ: On Knox, you instructed the musicians to relate to their own feelings of situations similar to those you had in mind for the pieces. How did that work in promoting a more emotional engagement? Is that a method you will be using again?

TA: This is actually a very common tool. Giving motivations to your players. You are docile and you are aggressive and so forth. Because the piece was set up like a play or opera with different acts you need to explain to the players why they doing what they are doing. I actually go through the process of making a screen play like you would for any theatrical production. We are story tellers and that is something that goes back to the beginning of human history. I don't think anybody is re-inventing the process of story telling. We are riding on the backs of thousands of years of people perfecting these crafts.

AAJ: In the liner notes to "Knox you explain that you assigned all the musicians a role, with Alex Harding representing madness, and Oscar Noriega the child in the piece, for example, but there wasn't an explicit role for the bass. What was your role?

TA: Well it's interesting. Since it was a self portrait I really thought of each musician as a split—you know the worst depression I've ever had—I've suffered from slight depression most of my life and I've had some feelings of madness at certain points. I think everybody gets to those points in their life stress at certain things. I felt that if I ever had my personality split into different parts, each musician would describe a different part of my personality.



And then I was essentially playing the essence of myself: the innocent center that's always been with me since birth. It was described to me once that we all have a center that's untouchable, that stays with us our whole lives, and I tried to be that. As a bassist, you are an anchor in the band so it fits with my role as a musician too, holding down the low end and being an anchor. That's pretty much what I was thinking. I've never defined that, but in the end when I think about it that's what I was trying to achieve from my own performance.

AAJ: The feel of the album to me certainly represented an evolution from Conscription, the first disc on CIMP. There is more of a looseness and more of an emotional involvement coming through. Did you use similar compositional methods and ways of getting the band involved for the first recording?

TA: Yeah, it's interesting. For Knox, we used a video score similar to the Yuganaut ones, with the lines, and for Conscription we used line structures also, but they were just on paper. They weren't video. You read from the paper on the stand from left to right, so it was similar to that process. I didn't have emotional roles for the musicians at that time. It was more of a set of music that I felt fitted together, more of a traditional way of putting an album together. I sat down and figured out all the compositions and how they might fit together. I made sure I had an upbeat number and that certain elements were there. Knox was more trying to tell this very intimate story, more of a process. I really think when I finished Conscription it set me toward the path of wanting to be a storyteller with these really cohesive characters and story line for the band to work of off. It really inspired that, I think.

AAJ: I noticed there was a piece, "Raising Knox," on the first Triptych Myth CD. Has this character been around for a long time in your thoughts before the The Animated Adventures of Knox ?

TA: Yeah, I'd done a lot of solo work and Knox was my alter ego in the music . If someone made a Hollywood movie, I would want the character to be named Knox if they played me. There's something about that name. Of course Fort Knox has that constricting sound to it and there's other things that come to mind, a loneliness, a singularity. The piece on Triptych Myth, that solo piece, had a really long title. It was called "Raising Knox, Falling Titus..." It had three names that I can't remember now, but I sent the title to them and they said, "No, we're going to cut it down to just this one part."

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Background and History

AAJ: You were born in Seattle?

TA: Yeah, I was born in Seattle in 1972 and grew up there. I had an amazing public school music program that I can credit for most of my musicianship. All through junior high and high school I played tuba in the concert band and marching band and orchestra, and I played bass in the jazz band. I played bagpipes for a little while in high school.



There was a lot of music going on there. When I was 20 I moved to New York to go to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. I studied with Reggie Workman and Chico Hamilton and a lot of amazing people there. I dropped out of school after two years, basically because I was playing every night as a bassist, playing bebop gigs, restaurant gigs and cafe gigs all around New York. It was '92 when I moved to New York.



And then in '96 I got really interested in the downtown free jazz scene and I started a non-for-profit [organization] called Jump Arts in '97 with some friends of mine, and from '97 to 2002 we put on three festivals a year featuring a lot of people from the downtown scene, like Sabir Mateen, Steve Swell, Rashied Ali, and we also featured a lot of emerging artists and gave them opportunities to play.

AAJ: Is Jump Arts still operational?

TA: The organization still exists and we are still a not-for-profit, but we stopped producing festivals because I grew tired of it. It was five years constantly fund raising. At this point we sponsor artists. If they need non-for-profit status we offer our services, so they can use our status and help them get grants and things. It's largely not functioning, but we still keep it going for that reason. We can get tax-deductible donations and things like that.

AAJ: You say it was the public school that got you into music. Was your family musical at all?

TA: Not really. My mom played a little piano and she got me to take piano lessons when I was young. In elementary school, I started playing cello, but it wasn't really a family thing as much as Seattle just has a wonderful system with a lot of arts. There were the jocks and I was the band geek at public school. I was a terrible student and it was the one thing that gave me confidence in my life as a pre-teen and a teenager. I wouldn't have made it through high school if it wasn't for the fact I had band first and fourth period, so I had to stay at least until fourth period for the band. Otherwise I would have left after first period or not shown up at all.

AAJ: You started playing bass at age 11 and then later took up tuba. What attracts you to those bottom-end sounds?

TA: Well interestingly enough, I started playing electric bass and I wanted to be in a Van Halen cover band. That didn't work out actually. The drummer quit. I'd just started bass lessons so I kept going with it. I wanted to be in the jazz band in my middle school. I came to the band director and I said I'd love to be in the jazz band. He said well, you can only be in the jazz band if you are in the regular band, the concert band. I said, well you don't have electric bass in concert band. He said, yeah I know, we need a tubist.



So he sent me to summer school to learn tuba. Then I was in jazz band and concert band for the next six years of public school. So thanks to that junior high band director it really got me into exploring classical music on the tuba and pushed me to be a better bassist all through school. So that's all the low instruments. I was basically stuck with it after that.



I was also a really big guy, over 6' 1," kinda husky kid. So whenever a band director looked at me they thought of the big instruments right away. Big hands. If you're a small guy they put you on flute or clarinet, but if you're big they put you on the bigger instruments.

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Creative Improvised Music and the Downtown Scene

AAJ: How did you become involved in creative improvised music and the Downtown scene?

TA: Well the first big influence was Reggie Workman at the New School. I was in his Coltrane Ensemble, and of course he played with Coltrane in the '60s. He really pushed us as a rhythm section in his group to really stir things up. He would make this motion with his arms like he was stirring a big pot of soup with his hands on the handles, he would stir it up. He would scream at you to stir it up, as a matter of fact, and it just spurred me to figure out how to get this fire under the band. That really opened me up to all the ways I could do that with the bass and how to get under things and fill up the space and make things boil. That was the first big influence.



The time I really got into it, I was playing with the pianist Andrew Bemkey, who has recorded with Roy Campbell and Billy Bang, and we were playing in a band that was all Thelonious Monk tunes, and he knew every Thelonious Monk tune there was. It was really fun. And one day after a year or so of doing that he said, "OK Tom, we're going to change things up now. We're gonna just play. We're gonna just improvise." And he was pretty sure that I was going to quit the band at that point. And he looked at me like, OK we'll see what happens. And from my experience with Reggie, I knew how to do it.



And from the first gig that we did that, I felt free. I felt completely released from playing changes or having to play time. The role of the bass was just very strict in straight ahead jazz, and I was totally free from that. There was just no turning back. I felt like the bird that took its first flight. I was just ecstatic about doing that.

AAJ: When you first came to NYC, who did you listen to at that time?

TA: For the first three or four years, I was completely obsessed with Paul Chambers. Anything Paul Chambers played on, from the Miles stuff, to Wynton Kelly, everything. As a melodic bassist, he was for a lot of straight-ahead bass players one of the first guys who was able to make these lovely flowing bebop solos. So I was really focused on that.



And I was also playing with a lot of tenor players who were super into Coltrane, so I was playing a lot of that music also. That led me into [Jimmy] Garrison, and that led me into Mingus and Scott LaFaro. Those were really my four guys for the first five to ten years in New York. That's a variety of styles that gave me the tools I needed to get into the free jazz, to have the aggressiveness of maybe Mingus, and the inventiveness of Scott LaFaro. Those influences took me really far when I came to be more free.

AAJ: You met Chad Taylor around this time and he's one of two drummers you've had long working relationships with, Geoff Mann being the other. What do you look for in a drummer? What keeps you going back to these guys?

TA: Both of those guys I met at the New School in '92 or '93. The relationship between a bassist and a drummer is so important and so integral to a group. The bottom, the rhythm, everything is there. And I found there is no replacement for the experience of playing for years with a drummer, no matter how good the drummer is, understanding where I put my quarter note on the beat, where he puts his ride cymbal, takes a long time. Luckily both those guys are really talented drummers. The fact that I got to play with them for years, when it came time six or seven years later in the late '90s to start recording, they were my first choice for every band I was in.



So I definitely look for a drummer that has fire, and has a lot of versatility, and can really fire things up when it's time to. But there is just no replacing experience in a rhythm section of playing together. I think that's evident from all the great working bands of history: Miles' band, Coltrane's band, and going through other music. Duke Ellington's rhythm section. They played together for a long time and you could hear telepathy happening.



So that's definitely my first choice. And then looking for new drummers, I get to hear a lot of music and listen to people that get me excited. But even when I get to play with them it takes a while to get that connection to happen.

AAJ: One of the first records that I became aware of your playing on was the trio with Ori Kaplin with Steve Swell on CIMP. How did you meet up with those guys?

TA: You know Ori had a gig at this little club in New York called First Street Cafe, which is now defunct, which was on the corner of First Street and First Avenue. Three or four of us had a gig different nights there. Ori came by on Wednesdays when I played and said "Hey, come and play on Thursday with me." So we started playing. And I met Steve a little while later. He came to a jam session that I was playing at. I had actually never heard Steve, and he had the most amazing sound on trombone that I had ever heard.



And so Ori was looking for a guest for his second record. The first record we did just as a trio with Geoff. The second one he was looking for somebody special to add to it, so I said "well I heard this trombonist and he was just incredible." And of course Ori knew who Steve was, so I called up Steve and we did some gigs and that's how that disc came about.

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Playing Bass and Tuba Simultaneously

AAJ: You are a multi instrumentalist and play bass and tuba, and though I've never had the pleasure of seeing you play live, I've heard you playing bass and tuba simultaneously on record, or bass and didgeridoo simultaneously. And it strikes me that this is almost a characteristic, that with Yuganaut you are making music but you also have the videos there for people to look at, that you are always pushing at the boundaries of what is possible. What drives you to play more than one instrument at the same time? What are you going for?

TA: I've played tuba and bass for all my adult life at and I sit in my practice room and I have all these instruments around me, and it just comes to me: wow, what if I could put that sound with that sound, and I try to figure out how. It's almost like I can't help myself. I love both instruments equally and to play just one I feel that sometimes it's like I'm missing an arm. It's like I wish I could play tuba now for this part. And I started out just switching between them as fast as I could. I would have my tuba right next to me and pick it up really quickly, and I would play like the bridge of a song on tuba and then switch right back to bass.



Then I figured out—I made some pedals to operate the valves with my foot and was able to keep playing bass and tuba at the same time. I made a harness for my didgeridoo and inserted it through the bridge, so I could blow on the didgeridoo at the same time as playing the bass. And then more recently I've attached a violin to the didgeridoo, so I can switch to violin, and then bass, and then didgeridoo. I have a tambourine thing attached to my foot so I can have percussion going at the same time. I love all these sounds and they are part of my personality so that I want at my fingertips at all times. That desire is there on a personal level.



Of course, meeting Geoff and Steve who are obsessive in the same way with their instruments was, like: OK, this makes a lot of sense.

AAJ: And you also play as a solo artist as well, so it provides you with other avenues of expression.

TA: Yeah, sure. The idea when I'm playing percussion, bass and tuba, that I have basically a trio—a bassist, a drummer and a horn player going at the same time, and I don't have to pay a drummer and a horn player for the gig! [laughs]. There's no personality conflicts, it is very simple. And besides it is a thrilling experience to do that. I can't quite describe what it is like to have those three voices going. It's like being on a roller coaster, in a personal way.

Tom AbbsAAJ: I've noticed on some of your recordings, particularly on the CIMP label, that there is a sort of whooshing sound. Where does that come from?

TA: [laughs]. Well, I think it's from playing tuba for so many years. When I play bass I blow air out of my mouth, and as I'm phrasing, like a singer would phrase, I blow out during the phrase and then I take a breath, and then I continue to blow, and I almost can't help it. I try to stop it on recordings, and I thought I would never admit this, but I often stick a piece of washcloth in my mouth to stop it from happening and it's quite embarrassing for people to see and people laugh at me. But if I don't want that sound on the recording I have to chew gum or something. And people often say: "what is that sound?" and they can't figure out where it is coming from. I've tried to stop it for years. I got fired from a gig once for doing that. But it's just left over from playing tuba for so long. I just associate exhaling with my phrasing.

AAJ [laughs] So playing the tuba simultaneously is probably the one way to really prevent it.

TA: I've got to have something in my mouth. If not a mouthpiece then something.

AAJ: On your website you describe yourself as a multi instrumentalist and a film maker. It seems that film is becoming increasingly important to you as a means of expression. Are you ever going to movie away from music purely to film?

TA: Absolutely not. One thing that differentiates my film making from maybe a dedicated film maker is that I've always started with the music. And like with Knox, I recorded the music first and then made the film to it. Or I always have a musical idea that comes first before the images. Again, it is trying to get the visualizations I have in my head, while I'm playing, out and onto something that somebody else can see. It's that process. I really hold that dear. I don't ever just want to make films.



I'm actually not even interested in just scoring other people's films, necessarily. I really like the process of the images coming from the music and not the other way around. So I can say pretty definitively that I'll never leave music. Having an instrument in my hands, that makes me feel whole. A camera in my hand is not the same. Editing film is not the same. It's all creative and I enjoy it and it is all an extension of music, but to me it is an extension of music and not in itself fulfilling enough.

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Living as a Creative Musician in New York City

AAJ: You've been in New York now for 17 years. How have things changed for the creative artist/musician over that time?

TA: I started out for the first six or seven years playing straight-ahead jazz and I was able to work every night doing that, either in a restaurant or cafe or in a club, parties or weddings, making a living as a straight-ahead jazz musician. And when I switched to playing this more adventurous music, it completely changed. Now I was doing concerts instead of playing when people were eating. So that transition was drastic. All of a sudden I was working half as much. There was just not as much work, because it was more specific and it was more a concert than a service. So that was really a hard thing for me to take, not working as much as I did.



I guess the whole time I've been in New York, 16 or 17 years, I've watched clubs close and new ones open and its just constantly evolving. And a lot of people say it's gone downhill. And for me, insofar as the opportunities I've been able to take advantage of, it hasn't changed that much. And I'm lucky, because in a way I've gotten pickier as all these years have gone by. So I play a little less, but I'm actually happier with the scene. And the thing about New York in the end is that there are so many talented artists, not just musicians but all kinds of artists, and even if there aren't as many gigs as there used to be there are still all these amazing artists here. The chance to collaborate is just never ending. In that respect, I'm just as happy in New York as I've ever been.

AAJ: So are you able to make a living from your art or do you have to do other things as well?

TA: I made a choice to stop doing society gigs or club dates as they call them, playing straight-ahead jazz. When I did that I was able to make a living and I decided to stop a number of years ago to concentrate on the creative music that I love, and at that point I started teaching.



More recently I've taken the job of general manager of ESP disk, the record label in Brooklyn. I do that full time and I tour whenever I need to and take a leave of absence from that job, working with Bernard Stollman, who has run the label since 1965. He's 78 now and still running the label, and I'm at his side helping him do that. So that's allowed me a lot of freedom. I went from teaching for about eight or nine years, I really got sick of teaching, and then met Bernard and took the job there. It's in my industry, obviously, and I have a great opportunity to learn from him how the business works and doesn't work.



In addition to that, This Musicship, the Yuganaut record that we put out on Block M. It originally had very limited distribution. We basically sold it at our shows and that was about it, and now ESP is putting that record out in April. It's finally going to get worldwide distribution and some attention I hope. So that's a little bit of news which hasn't been announced yet.

AAJ: Has the ESP label been reactivated? I'm familiar with the issues and reissues from the '60s, but is there new material that is going to be issued as well?

TA: There is and there has been since 2005. Of course in the past, the original catalog from the '60s was licensed to different companies, and it continues to be put out by Abraxas, actually illegally, which is interesting to note. They continue to bootleg it and we've been fighting them on that for the last three years. The original ESP discs were the 1000 series, the 2000 series and the 3000 series catalog numbers. And since 2005 we've been putting out the 4000 series, mostly new releases. Since I've been here at ESP we're doing a lot of reissues—24 reissues in 2008—and 12 new releases. So throughout this year you will see a lot of stuff coming out.

AAJ: What type of music and artists will be featured?

TA: Well, Yuganaut is a good example of one of the newer bands that ESP is putting out, really adventurous music that fits in with the spirit of the original catalog. We're putting out some unreleased Don Cherry, and we got our hands on a whole bunch of archival stuff which we're really excited about putting out, which has never been released. And we're putting out a record by Totem, which is a band with Bruce Eisenbeil, the guitarist. We're really excited about that record.

We just found a studio where we're gonna start recording artists again for the label. We're in talks about doing a Charles Gayle record in a few months. So we are really excited about not only putting out the back catalog, reissues and archival stuff, but starting to record new artists again, like Bernard did in the '60s, when he went around and recorded Albert Ayler and recorded all these artists. So we are getting back to that tradition. ESP in the '60s had such an influence in getting these people's new records out who couldn't get on major labels, and getting them out there. And we really hope to do that again for a lot of emerging artists as well as getting some unsung heroes names and music out for people to hear.

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The Transcendentalists

AAJ: Talking of labels with emerging artists, the CIMP label put out one of my favorite recordings of recent years, Real Time Messengers by the Transcendentalist, with yourself and David Brandt and Steve Swell and Daniel Carter. I thought that was an unheralded gem. That was very much a band based round the rhythm section, in terms of the dynamics. I was sorry that group didn't last longer. How did you feel about that band?

TA: It's interesting because Dave Brandt and myself were pretty much a younger generation. Steve has been around for a long time, as you know, and obviously Daniel is a veteran of the downtown scene also. So it was really exciting. Dave Brandt studied with Milford Graves and he has a lot of rhythm going on all the time, and has his own thing with it also.



So we had this youthful bass and drummer, really a lot of energy, and then these two horns that are just piercing and just so strong. So Dave and I were able to create these swells of rhythm and energy for Steve and Daniel to go on top of. That was always really exciting for us and I think there is that youth and elder dynamic in the band that somehow is very interesting. There actually have been talks recently of us getting back together.

AAJ: That would be great.

TA: Dave moved to San Francisco a couple of years ago, but he's coming back regularly to New York, and Steve and Daniel and I have talked recently about it, so I'm hopeful that will happen. We're all still friends. It was really when Dave left, that was the end of that for a little while. Coming back after a number of years is always exciting because we've had our own developments and it's always interesting to see how the music changes after a little bit of time.

AAJ: How did you find the experience of recording for CIMP in the Spirit Room?

TA: I think I've done seven or eight things up there now, and I'm actually going up in April with Andrew Lamb and Warren Smith to do an Andrew Lamb trio date. The experience is, well they're such a family up there, Bob Rusch and Marc Rusch, his son who does the engineering. They treat you like family. The whole experience is very relaxing and comfortable and they're all about making you just think about the music.



You've got everything you need and it's really just a wonderful space. It's also a farm up there so you get this natural feeling. After leaving New York and you drive five hours to this country place and there is that kind of transition into their space, it's very poignant, I think. So what they have there is very special in terms of creating an atmosphere and bringing you out to the more natural world and providing opportunities for people. A lot of those recordings wouldn't get recorded without them. So I can only express my thanks for what they've done and all the good experiences.

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Triptych Myth and Cooper-Moore

AAJ: One of the other bands you've played with is Tryptych Myth, with Chad Taylor again, and Cooper-Moore on keyboards and other instruments. Is that band still playing?

TA: We do gigs once in a while now. Chad is so busy these days it's hard for us to get together. We did one record for Hopscotch and one for Aum Fidelity, and we were actually supposed to do three records for Aum Fidelity, but the deal fell through after the first record. That actually slowed down the band's progress a little bit. We did a gig in the fall, which was a lot of fun. Actually there is a clip on YouTube of the last gig we did at a college in Vermont, and you can actually see part of that. Since everyone is so busy and Cooper-Moore is off touring with Assif [Tsahar] from Hopscotch a lot, we're looking to get to another level, as far as gigs go. So we're being a lot more picky about the opportunities we're taking. So it cuts down on our performances. I'm actually hoping that we'll record for ESP soon.



ESP just put out the documentary Inside Out In The Open by Alan Roth and of course Cooper-Moore is featured in that. Bernard Stollman is a big fan of Cooper-Moore's, so we're hoping that will somehow work itself out to record again.

AAJ: How did you meet Cooper-Moore?

TA: I'm sure you're aware of the bassist Wilbur Morris, Butch Morris' brother. Well I was a huge fan of Wilbur, and he had played on some of the festivals that Jump Arts had produced, and so I had met Wilbur a number of times, talked to him and loved his playing. He was just an amazing performer. He got sick with cancer, and it was around the time he was sick, before he passed away, that I got a call for a gig with Alex Harding, who's on the Knox record, and Reggie Nicholson and Cooper-Moore. They called me because Wilbur was sick, and I was quite honored to sub for him. So that's how I met Cooper-Moore.



We played. I had heard Cooper-Moore do things on his other instruments, but on that gig in particular he was playing piano. I had never heard anybody play piano like that in my life. The piano was in tune when he started and out of tune when he finished, because he hit it so hard, he was so aggressive. He was out of his seat so many times during the performance, he would stand up and beat on the piano. The energy and his touch. I just fell in love with his piano playing.



Actually I was on the road with Chad, and Chad and I were looking for a trio to play in. We were playing with Steve Swell and Jemeel Moondoc at the time in the Active Ingredients band that recorded for Delmark. We really were looking for a trio to play in together as we had come up together at the New School playing in trios. I said "Wow. I was just playing with Cooper-Moore the other day. It was amazing." And Chad said "Wow that would be great. I love Cooper-Moore's playing."



I called Cooper-Moore up very humbly and said "Cooper-Moore, would you play with myself and Chad Taylor?" He said "Who's Chad Taylor?" I said "Oh you'll like Chad's playing, he's a good drummer." So we got together. Cooper-Moore explained to me that he wasn't really playing piano any more at the time, and I couldn't believe it. That gig he did with Alex Harding was a rarity, since he had quit playing with William Parker's band In Order To Survive.

AAJ: Yeah, that was a fantastic band.

TA: So when we asked him to play piano in this trio, he got really excited about it, and we rehearsed a lot. So that's how that band came about.

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Kidney Donation and MP Landis

AAJ: I saw a press release about your solo tour, Petting Zoo, which starts in mid-March and it also mentioned your collaboration with the artist MP Landis. This collaboration has even extended to you donating a kidney to him and you have described it as like another collaboration. Would you like to say a little about that situation?

Tom AbbsTA: Well, obviously we are very close at this point. You know, Michael was on the board of directors of Jump Arts back in '97/98 and through its life. He's still on the board of directors. So that's how I met him. I got really interested in his art. He actually took the photos for Ori Kaplan's first record on CIMP. There's a photo in the liner notes that MP took and that's how I met him at the photo shoot. He did a whole bunch of covers for records I was on, mostly independent stuff. Then he started painting live at our shows for Jump Arts. So I just had this long evolving collaboration with him.



He's the manager of a brownstone in Brooklyn and he invited me and my wife to move into the second floor of the brownstone. So we were really excited and we moved in with him and his girlfriend Sarah, and became even closer. About four months after that he had kidney failure. He had Type A diabetes in childhood and it has taken it's toll. I think he was about 42 at the time. A long life with the disease and then his kidneys finally gave up.



So I was living in the same house with him and we shared a garden and we were very close at that time. It was heartbreaking. When somebody you care about gets sick it's really hard for anybody. You feel helpless. He went on dialysis which is a really horrible way to live. Anyone who knows anyone on dialysis, you go about three times a week for four hours. The next day you're exhausted, so you have one day every three days that you feel alright. And he stopped being able to paint. He couldn't get into his studio, he was always too tired.



Actually somebody else had come forward who was a match for him for the kidney transplant, so he was all set to have the transplant with this other donor, and at the last minute the other donor had to pull out for family reasons. At that point I had my heart set on him getting this transplant, so I went and got tested, and the doctors were amazed at how close a match we were, meaning that it was really likely not to reject, which is of course the fear—that the organ will reject after the transplant.



Honestly, my feeling about the whole thing is that we're all helpless when our loved ones get sick, and we all end up watching our parents pass away eventually, and friends. And I felt so lucky. It's like I was presented with this opportunity. I was the only one who had a chance to help, and I felt so lucky to do that. Also my whole life I've been really healthy. I haven't really been sick at all in my adult life. I hardly ever get the flu or anything. I must have an immune system that's really strong. So I haven't really known any health problems in my life. So to me it was no big deal. I was literally jogging a week after the surgery.

AAJ: Wow

TA: Yeah, it's pretty uninvasive now. They do it all laposcopically now for the donor. So really I didn't have any ill effects. I feel fine with my one kidney now. And Michael has always been a constant inspiration to me as an artist. Now being able to see him healthy. He still has bad days, he's on immune-suppressants, different drugs to keep the kidney from rejecting, which have different effects on his energy levels and how he feels, so he's not always feeling 100 percent. But most of the time he's active. I actually hired him as art director at ESP, so we're collaborating on that now. So we're progressing on from making art to working together at the label. We're like brothers. We're really close, we live in the same house, and it's just strengthened our friendship.

AAJ: That's great. It's a very uplifting story.

TA: As you probably read in the press release, we worked on a documentary with our friend Ryan Tebo, out of Boston. We filmed everything about the transplant. So we're really excited about that, and also that we are premiering Michael and I's latest collaboration which is a video and music piece.



He was going to come on the tour with me, but he developed a slight kidney infection and has to stay in New York. Luckily he's feeling fine. He's just on some antibiotics, but they have to watch his different intake and outtake levels, and blood levels. So he can't leave town unfortunately. He had planned to come with me and perform with me, and travel with the film. I'm a little sad about that, but even so being able to go out and tell the story and show the work that we've been working on, which is our first post surgery collaboration artistically, it is kind of the trophy at the end of the road. The first year of the transplant is when you really have to worry, and after a year it's OK. So we've got past the first year, so we're celebrating with this tour.

AAJ: What else is coming up for you?

TA: We're recording with CIMP with the Andrew Lamb trio with Warren Smith. So that should be out probably in the fall sometime. That's meant to be a two-record set. We're doing two different sets of compositions when we go to CIMP.


Selected Discography

Yuganaut, This Musicship (ESP, 2008)
Warren Smith, Natural/ Cultural Forces (Engine, 2007)
Tom Abbs & Frequency Response, The Animated Adventures of Knox (482 Music, 2005)
Triptych Myth, The Beautiful (Aum Fidelity, 2005)
Tom Abbs & Frequency Response, Conscription (CIMP, 2003)
Cooper-Moore, Tom Abbs, Chad Taylor, Triptych Myth (Hopscotch, 2003)
Active Ingredients, Titration (Delmark, 2003)
Andrew Lamb, The Pilgrimage (CIMP, 2003)
Steve Swell's NY BrassWood Trio, Still in Movement (CIMP, 2003)
Transcendentalists, Real Time Messengers (CIMP, 2002)
Assif Tsahar & the Zoanthropic Orchestra, Embracing the Void (Hopscotch, 2002)
Ori Kaplan Trio Plus Steve Swell, Delirium (CIMP, 2001)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Frank Rubolino
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Tom Abbs



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