Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

John Sharpe By

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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.


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.


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.


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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