Eric Revis: The Specter of Posterity
Photo by Petra Cvelbar
Bassist Eric Revis first came to prominence supporting Betty Carter in the mid-1990s, shortly after completing formative studies with Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans. Since then, Revis has become a key figure in the creative mainstream: as a stalwart member of Branford Marsalis’ Quartet; part of the collective trio Tarbaby (with pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Nasheet Waits); and a sideman to neo-traditional artists like JD Allen, Russell Gunn and Winard Harper.
Released on Portugal’s Clean Feed Records, Parallax is his third effort as a bandleader, following the eclectic Laughter’s Necklace of Tears (11:11 Records, 2009) and Tales of The Stuttering Mime (11:11 Records, 2004), which offered colorful demonstrations of the bassist’s expansive compositional palette, featuring such unique instrumental sonorities as melodica, string quartet and washboard. Equally diverse, yet far more adventurous, Parallax is the debut of his 11:11 quartet – a virtual summit meeting of contemporary talent – featuring Revis, Waits and the drummer’s primary employer, pianist Jason Moran, performing alongside Chicago scene leader Ken Vandermark.
Revis is no stranger to such vanguard company; although often found supporting straight-ahead players like Lionel Hampton, Billy Harper and McCoy Tyner, Revis toured with Peter Brötzmann in 2009, serving with Waits as the renowned German firebrand’s dedicated rhythm section. Bolstered by longstanding relationships, Revis’ studied rapport with Waits in Tarbaby and Waits decade-plus membership in Moran’s Bandwagon trio provides this particular lineup with a deep sense of camaraderie far greater than the average super-group.
The quartet’s efforts encompass a wealth of inside-outside dynamics, seamlessly bridging the tenuous divide between traditions. The members’ shared enthusiasms for the stylistic nuances of prewar jazz draw a striking parallel to the genre-defying innovations of the AACM, most notably on stirring covers of Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” – riotous interpretations that find aesthetic concordance in the equally raw, albeit cohesive collective improvisations “Hyperthral” and “IV.” Though spontaneously conceived, the intense focus of the latter pieces confirms the ensemble’s adroit interplay; Vandermark’s husky tenor refrains, Moran’s bustling two-handed runs and Waits’ careening downbeats effortlessly interlock with the leader’s pneumatic fretwork, lending the rhapsodic proceedings a wholly unified sensibility.
The diverse cast also enables Revis an opportunity to showcase his burgeoning compositional style, as exemplified by sophisticated ensemble numbers like the contrapuntal march “MXR” and opulent tango “Edgar.” His refined writing also informs his virtuosic solo technique, readily demonstrated by the ruminative bass soliloquies “Prelusion” and “Percival” – the former regaling with dervish-like arco, the latter blistering pizzicato.
Rounded out by stellar pieces written by his peers, including the rhythmically daunting “Dark Net,” penned by saxophonist Michaël Attias, and Vandermark’s sole contribution, the scorching free bop swinger “Split,” Parallax embodies a truly diverse microcosm of contemporary jazz styles. Intrigued by the album’s expansive continuum, I interviewed Revis in the winter of 2012.
Troy Collins: When comparing your sideman discography to the lineup featured on Parallax, the personnel seems a little surprising. Jason Moran and Ken Vandermark are widely revered for their creative virtuosity, but also for their leadership abilities in their respective metropolitan scenes; Moran in New York and Vandermark in Chicago, respectively. Can you explain how you managed to get these two leaders together as sidemen in a quartet setting?
Eric Revis: It was actually a pretty easy process. I called Nasheet, Ken, and Jason and asked them if they wanted to do a gig I had in NYC. Luckily everyone was available and the gig was great.
TC: Where was the gig held and did the set feature any of the tunes included on Parallax? If so, how have those pieces changed since their initial conception?
ER: The gig was at The Jazz Gallery in NYC. I believe we did the Fats Waller and Jelly Roll tunes on the gig and we played them pretty conventionally. As we did more gigs, I realized that when given the opportunity to document the band, this was a group I could take advantage of exploring the possibilities of the tunes I had been composing. All of the tunes other than the aforementioned songs on Parallax were brought in at the date.
TC: One detail that makes 11:11’s personnel a little less startling is your time spent touring with Peter Brötzmann. Can you describe how that gig came about and how it may have influenced 11:11, if at all?
ER: I have been a huge fan of Mr. Brötzmann for a long time. In ‘04-‘05 Nasheet and Peter were doing a series of dates as a duo. Around that time Nasheet and I were on the phone just catching up with each other and he mentioned that he and Peter were doing these shows and would be performing at the now defunct Tonic. I told him about me being a big fan of Peter and that I would definitely be down to see them. He told Peter about this and they actually invited me to do the gig. A year or two later I saw Peter in Austin, TX and he mentioned that he enjoyed the trio gig and that he’d been thinking about doing something with it. That resulted in a tour of that trio a year later and it was on that tour that I met Ken.
TC: Vandermark is well known for paying homage to a wide variety of artists, many of them musicians, but not all of them associated with jazz. As an artist with an equally eclectic background based in funk and rock music, how does that analogous aspect influence your writing and/or performing?
ER: I think anyone aspiring to a true artistic aesthetic is aware of and checks out a vast array of material. The more this is done, one starts to adhere to a certain universality of music and art devoid of the hierarchy that artists often attribute to one music over another. I think if one stays true to this ideal, those influences make themselves apparent and permeate (in a very organic way) any art one is involved in.
TC: There are a number of interesting intersecting relationships in 11:11; Waits is a member of Moran’s Bandwagon with bassist Tarus Mateen, while you and Waits play in TarBaby with pianist Orrin Evans. What differences or similarities do you notice in how these three ensembles function?
ER: I suppose the obvious similarity is that we are all committed to keeping Nasheet Waits working as much as possible (laughs).
I think that each of these groups represent a certain philosophical convergence of individuals who approach music and art in a similar fashion; with reverence for tradition as well as the commitment to an intelligent, artistic, forward-thinking trajectory.
Beyond that, Bandwagon and 11:11 are platforms for Jason and I to exact our particular voices in those settings/configurations. Tarbaby is a total collective effort.
TC: How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of the group?
ER: My criteria for putting any group together (or being in a group), is pretty straight forward. Cool, intelligent, forward-thinking individuals. That and they are all phenomenal musicians … with very distinct personalities.
TC: Were any of the tunes composed specifically for these particular players, or were they more skeletal in conception?
ER: There is an inherent danger and limitation to composing for specific individuals. One of my goals over the past few years has been to distance myself from my “likes” and compositional proclivities in order to allow my compositions to dictate their own path. When one writes for a specific individual you are limited by your interpretation of that person’s sound. That being said, my implicit trust in the musicians to interpret the music in whatever way they deem fit insures that the outcome will be optimal. For this recording (and mind you, there are 10 additional songs in the can) … a lot of it was composed. There were a few sketches as well.
TC: Does that mean there will be a follow-up album of unreleased material? Regardless, do you plan on continuing to record with this particular line-up?
ER: I think that some of those songs will be released at some point however I am more interested in documenting the group in its present-tense.
TC: While the album’s over-arching orientation is fiercely modern, two classic covers – Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” – are both given fascinating treatments; the former unfolds like a fever dream, the latter a rhapsodic revival. Can you describe your intention behind these bold interpretations of such venerated standards?
ER: One of the initial concepts I had for the band when we first got together was a “back-to-the-future” paradigm. Freely improvised sets peppered with songs from the “pre-standard” songbook. When you have a group of musicians that have reverence for the tradition as well as for the extemporaneous, you can do things like that in a very viable way.
The other thing is that so many of the songs from the “pre-standard” cannon are great songs that can be interpreted in a variety of ways and maintain their vitality. That was the impetus for “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” The arrangement of “Winin Boy” is an homage to Jelly Roll and the prison work song.
TC: The “back-to-the-future” paradigm finds obvious concordance in the AACM’s credo, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.” I assume you’ve drawn inspiration from the Association’s advancements, but considering your current role as Branford Marsalis’ primary bass player and knowing his brother’s outspoken ideology, how you manage to balance the two worlds? Do you find any aesthetic disparities between playing with Peter Brötzmann and Branford Marsalis, for example?
ER: I think a few things should be addressed in order to properly answer this question. First off, yes the AACM has been a tremendous influence for me both musically and philosophically. I feel that the thoroughness of concept and fearlessness they exhibited in exacting their art and principles is something that every musician – particularly ones involved in the Jazz/Creative music diaspora – should really investigate. In terms of the “Marsalis factor,” I find it interesting and somewhat disturbing that both Branford and Wynton are held accountable and taken to task for things they said over 20 years ago. It seems as if no leeway is given to these men for possibly expanding their particular views from that of the 20-something-year-olds they were who were accorded a platform that deservedly (or not) was placed upon them.
As this relates to the question … Are there not aesthetic disparities in speaking, I mean truly communicating with people from different regions of a given area? I believe if one’s intent is honest and coming from a well-rounded perspective, the “universality” I spoke of before, shines through. The elements I hold musically dear … my musical criteria … (intelligence, fearlessness, selflessness, reverence for tradition, virtuosity of sound) are elements that I find to be indelible components on all music(s) of quality. At that point it just becomes a matter of context.
TC: I’m curious about context and how it relates to your actual approach towards performing with artists as different as Brötzmann and Marsalis. Do you rely on a different skill set or instrumental palette, depending on who you’re performing with? I assume there are techniques that are more appropriate in one context than another, and if so, how does that affect your decision making?
ER: There are definitely techniques I employ for different contexts. I am a firm believer in letting the punishment fit the crime. Yes, appropriateness is definitely key. Although, I must say that as I have explored and developed more “language” in the realm of extended techniques on the double bass, I do think I have organically incorporated those elements into other contexts more and more.
TC: Parallax seems to encompass all aspects of the tradition equally, and I’m curious if the 11:11 quartet is more liberating for you as a performer – i.e.; not being constrained stylistically in almost any conceivable way?
ER: 11:11 is very liberating in that I am able to exact the whole of my voice and artistic trajectory up to this point.
TC: What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation.
ER: There is always the specter of posterity in the studio. That, and the fact that the musicians alone are responsible for the energy. The studio lends itself to being more meticulous.
TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?
ER: Although the convenience of the download is undeniable, I think that the overall artistic package that LP’s encompassed is sorely missed. A great deal of my music history was garnered from album covers. The fact that so much music has yet to be archived in download form and the sound quality of downloads is so poor, are but other disappointments in this age of the download.
TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?
ER: I tend to be a little behind the curve when it comes to technological advances. This is something I plan to remedy sometime in the future. Even though I realize that some of these advances … music programs/apps and such … can be valuable tools, I at this point am really concerned with just getting better as a musician/composer and that is where I devote my time.
There are no particular “current” movements in music that I am into per se. My current listening involves: Alban Berg, Meshuggah, Odd Future, Grizzly Bear, Leron Thomas, Prokofiev, Darando, Julius Hemphill.