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Eric Revis Quartet at the Jazz Gallery: Old-Time Rhythms

Eric Benson By

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Together, the group captured a jaunty New Orleans carnival spirit that still maintained an inclination toward experimentation and intensity.
Eric Revis Quartet
Jazz Gallery
New York, NY
August 28, 2009

I don't imagine the Eric Revis Quartet was assembled with reconciliation in mind, but to a hobbled veteran of the Jazz Wars—the squabbles and skirmishes over the music's boundaries that raged throughout the '80s, '90s, and early aughts—the lineup would look like an improvising West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Bassist Eric Revis, the group's leader, is best known for his longtime collaboration with Branford Marsalis, one of jazz's grumpy neo-classical princes, who, despite pop-culture peccadilloes with Jay Leno and Sting, talks trash about hip-hop and says that "students today are completely full of shit." Reedman Ken Vandermark, the de-facto leader of the Chicago avant-garde scene, refuses to use the word "jazz" at all and never plays standards, although his tone and attack display his deep knowledge of the tradition. Pianist Jason Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits—who along with bassist Tarus Mateen form the trio, The Bandwagon—are among the most polymath of jazzmen, equally at home swinging at the gilded Jazz at Lincoln Center or launching into free improvisations at dingy rock clubs.

Despite these different pedigrees, the Revis Quartet never felt like a forced exercise in transcending Jazz Wars divisions—the music was too ambitious, tempestuous, and flawed for petty politics. Early on, the group sounded lopsided, as establishing individuality trumped cohesiveness. Moran dominated the music with jagged stabs and furious runs, a dazzling show that nevertheless forced the rest of the band to obey his idiosyncrasies. Waits and Revis were with him as rhythmic support, but Vandermark, on bass clarinet, sounded strangely removed. This disjointed sound, however, proved to be a rough beginning not the dominant mode of the evening. Moran slackened his tempo and lightened his touch, and Vandermark shortened his lines to mesh with the jilting, almost spastic, rhythm. Once together, the quartet worked itself into a torrent, with Waits pounding on the bass drum and crackling on the high hat, and Revis strumming swells more than individual notes.

This full-bore sound continued through much of the set, as the band embarked on a three-movement cycle that roiled with sustained, stormy intensity. The easy point of comparison is to John Coltrane's classic quartet, especially its post-Love Supreme work, in which furious improvisations increasingly dominated classic melodic elements. Yet, unlike the Coltrane Quartet, Revis's group too often let the vigor of the group sound overwhelm its dynamics. The Quartet would blast away at full tilt, but make few adjustments in volume and timbre. The music was loud and bold, but also flat and, after a time, undramatic—intensity drained of tension.

The end of the set, however, saw the Quartet gain its form, first on a more melodically-oriented number and finally on the standard "Dinah." The dark, primal force of the earlier numbers remained, but now it had more contours and clearer internal conversations. Waits and Vandermark synched up, starting in a jaunty strut that shifted into off-kilter propulsion. Moran jumped in with his signature shuffle and then hooked into a repeated vamp with Vandermark. This time when the band conjured its thrash-jazz storm, the boldness felt earned, the logical conclusion to a fractured, but coherent, narrative.

"Dinah" seemed an odd choice for a finale, a sparkling boardwalk strut at the end of an hour in the crashing waves. Yet the standard proved a perfect showcase for the group's strength: rhythmic invention. Moran, perhaps more than any young pianist, sounds at home in honky tonky, pre-bop styles—his approach more closely aligned with the stride of James P. Johnson than the lyricism of Bill Evans. Vandermark also has an old-fashioned disposition, orienting his improvisations toward rhythm and melody more than harmonic invention. Waits can conjure a second-line march with aplomb on his drums and Revis is more than willing to ditch his Jimmy Garrison-esque bowing to mimic the oompa blasts of a tuba. Together, the group captured a jaunty New Orleans carnival spirit that still maintained an inclination toward experimentation and intensity. The Revis Quartet might not strive for post-Jazz Wars reconciliation, but it certainly brings together disparate threads of the tradition by unleashing the rhythms that have always propelled the music onward.

Photo Credit:

Top: Daniel Sheehan

Bottom: Francis Chung

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