Tom Abbs and Frequency Response – Hawthorne (2018)

Share this:

I’ve reviewed probably thousands of records since surveying Tom Abbs’ last album Lost And Found — recorded with his band Frequency Response — but still vividly remembering how much I liked that album…enough to make it my choice for best avant-garde album of 2009. Shortly after that record, the bassist, composer and bandleader launched a new record label specializing in the whack jazz and other experimental music arenas. That didn’t seem to be the kind of business venture that could last but here we are eight years later and Northern Spy has become one of the widely respected outlier music imprints in New York; turns out Abbs skills as an entrepreneur are a match to his abilities as a musician. So alas, it’s probably too much to expect anything more to come from Tom Abbs and his amazing Frequency Response quartet.


Shortly before diving into the business side of music, Abbs did lead one more date with his combo. The recordings were shelved as he turned his attention to Northern Spy but were recently taken out of the vault and mixed to bring a finished product across the finish line. Hawthorne (Engine Studios) is a homage of sorts to the Brooklyn neighborhood where Abbs once lived and you can hear it in the Caribbean influences that pop up here and there.

The Frequency Response personnel is the same one that recorded the excellent Lost And Found, with Brian Settles on tenor sax, Chad Taylor on drums and Jean Cook on violin. Abbs himself is a bassist first but shifts from instrument to instrument choosing from quite an array of weapons: bass, cello, tuba and piano. And all the things I loved about that 2009 release are present for its follow-up: the short but expressive performances, the sharp contrasts set up by an oddly configured trio and just the general unpredictability of it all.

“Quarter” is the longest performance — a sprightly five minutes — and the one that swings most like a mainstream unit. But Cook’s barbed violin refuses to let it get too comfortable, even when its doubling up with Settles’ sax on the thematic lines. “Turmoil” goes how the title suggests, with extra cacophony provided by Jenna Barvitski (violin) and Jason Candler (alto sax). Abbs never abandons melody and he devises one that fits the frame of mind being presented.

Though Abbs is avant-garde and sometimes goes completely free, he can put together some inventive grooves with Taylor. They combine for a calypso groove for “Travel” and “Bounce” is a cello/drums rhythm underpinning a pensive melody, nicely portrayed by Candler and Settles. But my favorite groove happens on “Fight,” where Abbs turns to the tuba with the expanded front line goes at half speed for the theme, otherwise creating energy on the fly; it’s like the Art Ensemble of New Orleans. The band follows this formula again for “Binding.”

The quieter moments have their own ways of drawing you in: Abbs moves off his customary bass to play a pretty, folksy cello that sets up a gentle tempo for “Regret.” There’s no soloing here, just an easygoing, rural vibe. A somber, almost creepy mood sets in when Abbs takes out the bow and Cook steps up front for “Longing,”

The fourth Frequency Response release from Tom Abbs could well be his last for a long time; the man’s got things to do. If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason to savor Hawthorne.

Share this: