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Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

By Published: June 23, 2008
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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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