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Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

By Published: June 23, 2008
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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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