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Tom Abbs & Frequency Response - The Animated Adventures of Knox

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Artist: Tom Abbs & Frequency Response

Album: The Animated Adventures of Knox

Label: 482 Music

Review date: Feb. 19, 2006

Couplings between cinema and free jazz are comparatively few. Ornette’s improvisatory score for Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua and the soundtrack to Michael Snow’s New York Eye and Ear Control performed by the ESP dream team of Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray are two notable examples. Most commercially-released collaborations are confined to films of the 1960s. Enter bassist Tom Abbs, who ups the ante on precedence by handling both audio and visual ends of his own cinematic project, The Animated Adventures of Knox.

This isn’t Abbs first foray into the merger of film and music. Multifarious, a self-produced DVD released several years ago, paired his own performances with the accompanying animated mixed-media paintings of artist M.P. Landis. Knox builds on the process behind that earlier work, expanding the visual end to encompass handheld video footage, extensive editing and post-production work with mixed results. The first disc holds a strictly audio soundtrack broken into nine tracks that correspond to a like number of cinematic acts. The second presents a DVD version of the film.

In his detailed notes, Abbs describes his intentions and methodology. He assigned each musician an emotion-oriented character counterpart. Reed player Oscar Noriega is the playful child. Cellist Okkyung Lee personifies love and cautious beauty. Baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Alex Harding shoulders the difficult role of exemplifying madness, and so on. The parts leave plenty of room for individual interpretation, though Abbs’ voice serves as overarching cynosure throughout. The music is a colorful, frenetic and often challenging blend of textured free jazz and chamber improv that speaks to the various players’ strengths, particularly Lee and drummer Chad Taylor. Abbs positions himself as an equal agent within the ensemble drawing on a cache of instruments that includes his usual implements of bass, tuba and dijeridoo, along with cello, violin and flute. Track/act titles like “Uncertainty” and “Rebellion” also carry metaphysical connotations and correspond loosely to emotional tipping points in an individual’s life.

The visuals of the film aren’t as consistently scrutable or cohesive as their accompanying sounds. Abbs fiddles regularly with lens focus and perspective, splitting the screen in two during one segment and regularly blurring objects to the point where they resemble abstract art during others. A steady succession of real world images scrolls past the camera: a child running and tumbling in a grass glade; a series of swiftly scrolling sidewalks; stationary shots of buildings; time-lapse captures of pedestrians; rotating bicycle spokes and so on. The herky-jerky movements of the hand-held are disorienting and occasionally downright dizzying. Their fit with the soundtrack sometimes seems arbitrary, even in light of Abbs’ assertions to the contrary. The unstable combination of elements ends up affirming the merits of his earlier collaboration with Landis. On that project the compositional frugality of Landis’ painting style and materials complemented the economy of Abbs’ solo instruments. In this case the palette and canvas feel too cluttered and diffusive, leading to a condition of ambition outdistancing outcome. While I plan to return periodically to the soundtrack disc, I can’t say the same about the film.

By Derek Taylor

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