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Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

By Published: June 23, 2008
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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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