Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

John Sharpe By

Sign in to view read count
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


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.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles