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Eric Revis: Trajectory From The Tradition

R.J. DeLuke By

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The only way to exact your vision or artistic trajectory is to do things yourself. To take that step into leadership, from an artistic point of view. —Eric Revis
The development of an individual voice on the contrabass is important to Eric Revis, one of the strongest players on the scene. His power and musicianship has endeared him to some of the finer musicians, and bands, in jazz. But Revis isn't content to let things lie there.

Not that he has to be out front flexing his considerable bass muscles. That's not the point. Through bands that he forms, his compositions, his collaborations, he wants to grow as an artist. One who is always contributing to whatever proceedings he is involved in. One who makes his own mark.

"He's a phenomenal bassist," says Branford Marsalis, who has employed Revis as his bassist since the late 1990s. "He knows how to play the instrument. He knows how to get the right sound." The saxophonist is referring to a sound that's deep in the tradition, stemming all the way back to when the tuba played that role in New Orleans. Marsalis says Revis's playing comes through the tradition. He does what the bass is supposed to do while maintaining creativity "A lot a lot of players are not doing that. Some [bass players], I don't know what they're doing."

Marsalis is referring to many younger players who can play a lot of notes, but lose the feeling, lose the musical intent, in an effort to sound hip—or their perception of it. He has some disdain for musicians on other instruments who do the same. Revis shares that kind of feeling about some of the music on today's scene.

Revis says some upcoming musicians buy into people being hailed in the media as "the new thing" and try to copy them, even if the hype is warranted. "I've played with Kurt Rosenwinkel for years. Every guitarist sounds like fucking Kurt," he says, chuckling at the thought. "There's this weird thing going on, man. The idea of developing your voice. We all have influences and we all aspire to a certain thing. But now, it's kind of like, 'I'll sound just like him.' We'd tour with Kurt and we'd get to places and there were people dressing like the motherfucker and shit. C'mon. They're taking detailed pictures of his pedal boards. Not realizing that this is but a tool. He's going to sound like he sounds. That part of the scene has been going on for the past 15 or 20 years. That's somewhat disconcerting ... It's almost like the elements of swing have been taken out. Every record sounds like that."

Revis also feels that is part of a cycle and the music will be moved forward. He wants to be among them. He has been producing music with his own bands, and the acclaimed group Tarbaby, that has its own voice. It's created with a respect for the past with an eye toward individual creativity. Group creativity.

The album he put out earlier this year, In Memory of Things Yet Seen (Clean Feed Records) is an example of that. It's a pianoless date with Chad Taylor on drums, Bill McHenry on tenor sax and Darius Jones on alto sax. It swings hard, it has blues and New Orleans elements. It doesn't sound like work he's done with others, which include Steve Coleman, Ralph Peterson, McCoy Tyner and Andrew Cyrille. There are threads to his other strong albums, like Tales of the Stuttering Mime, Laughter's Necklace of Tears and Parallax.

"It was pretty exciting," says Revis about putting together the album. "All five of my [previous] records have had piano or a chordal instrument. I've always been attracted to records and works that didn't have that. So I took it upon myself to meet that challenge. It's something that I was hearing anyway. Something that I always wanted to do. It seemed like a good time to do it."

Revis says there is a common thread through his last few recordings, though he is not covering the same ground. "The instrumentation has changed ... but the piano trio with Kris Davis (piano) and Andrew Cyrille (drums), it was much different than this one. But I think there's a thread. Maybe I'm biased in this shit. But there is a thread running throughout, which probably illuminates my trajectory."

Revis has known Taylor for years, from his early days in New York City. The same for Henry. He explains, "I was always a big fan of his stuff. I called him. I had a gig in New York. We started running into each other out in places. And had a mutual admiration society. I called him for a gig I was going at the Jazz Gallery, with Orrin Evans and Nasheet Waits. Bill came in and just killed it. His voice on the instrument is amenable to what I was doing and continue to do."

Jones on alto sax is someone he kept hearing about from friends. The meeting finally came about. The band cranks it out. "I heard the two voices. They had never played together, Bill and Darius," the bassist says."They both have very distinct voices and very complimentary voices. So I heard those things working in tandem. It met and exceeded what I was expecting."

Revis is relishing his time as a bandleader. "It's working out great. I think at a certain point, everyone is looking at transcending being an instrumentalist. The only way to exact your vision or artistic trajectory is to do things yourself. To take that step into leadership, from an artistic point of view. I think that, traditionally, [the bass] is probably one of the harder instruments to lead from. Especially given one's choice in terms of music. Some guys prefer to be a front-line guy. They hear music in that fashion. Whereas, my concern is the overall. Not necessarily an outlet for a bass solo every fucking tune. That's not my thing. It has been done. Charles Mingus was one of the few who was able to do both. Oscar Pettiford did that as well. But more so Mingus in terms of setting forth his conceptual vision, and he just happened to play bass. Very well."

Revis, with a foot in the tradition, looks for different ways of expression that do not mess with things that don't have to be messed with. "I think the deeper your roots run, the more you're able to expand. This is something I've always believed. The first quartet with Jason Moran, Ken Vandermark and Nasheet Waits, we were doing gigs and it would basically be free. Then I was doing Fats Waller tunes, pre-standard tunes. Jelly Roll Morton ... The idea is that this music is a continuum—you have to be somewhat versed and acknowledge the whole continuum—is very important. Today, a lot of guys don't do that. It's like you get a plate of food, or what's supposed to be a plate of food, and it's a bunch of fucking gravy. There's very little meat and potatoes. Or maybe a little vegetables and wilted lettuce or something. That's something I've always been aware of and held close to me. Going back and checking things out. And as I become older, that shit becomes more poignant. Jelly Roll Morton is extremely poignant. The records with Bill Johnson on bass. Pop Foster. It adds a weight to what you do. That's something I want to continue doing I try to cover it all, but with an effort to strengthen and deepen the roots in shows. That's my goal and my intention."

Like all instrumentalists, Revis has studied the outstanding bass players through jazz history. of the music. "So many," he says. "You start listing them and it sounds trite. But it's everybody. I'm always, always checking stuff out." Among them Jimmy Blanton, Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden and William Parker.

"One of the biggest influences was Israel Crosby. I just got a hold of some stuff that he did. I've been researching it for a while. But there are only four or five tunes available and I just got them. It's the Edmund Hall, Charlie Christian band, with Meade Lux Lewis on celeste. Israel at 21 was a beast. You hear all the stuff laid out there and how he developed it, in the latter part of his life, with Ahmad Jamal. It's just amazing. And lately, I've been on a real Oscar Pettiford kick."

Revis was about 13 when he started playing electric bass. In school he also played baritone sax and trombone. He didn't start on acoustic bass until he was about 20.

"I was intent on electric because I was playing a lot of stuff. Mostly funk, rock stuff, R&B. Then that kind of develops into a love for fusion. When I was 19, I got a hotel gig in San Antonio, Texas. There was a guitarist who had spent a lot of time in Japan. He had this huge record collection. Thousands and thousands of records. We were playing the River Walk and every week he would bring in a few records to check out. The music caught me and the switch came shortly after that to double bass."

In San Antonio, Revis had a chance encounter with Delfeayo Marsaliswhile doing some volunteer work for the Carver Cultural Center. The trombonist came into town for a show and Revis was bringing him in from the airport, telling him he was getting into jazz. "I was asking him questions. He said, 'If you're interested, my dad [Ellis Marsalis] is running a program down in New Orleans.' I was like, 'No shit.' I knew that at that point I had to study and get more serious." He studied at the University of New Orleans with the elder Marsalis and others. And in the mid-1990s, he went to New York City.

In New York, he caught on with the legendary singer and unofficial teacher Betty Carter. "After Betty, I'm in New York and just gigging. So I played with Billy Harper, George Cables, Winard Harper, Lionel Hampton, Louis Hayes. Typical New York, playing wherever."

He eventually did a big band gig at the Iridium nightspot conducted by Frank Foster that included trumpeter Russell Gunn. "They had a big pot of food backstage. I think it paid about $25. Maybe $15. But the food was the thing. You got train fare and the food. And, first and foremost, you got to deal with Frank Foster and his charts and all. It was a great time." From there, it led to playing on a Gunn record date and that's where he met Branford Marsalis, which started the long relationship that is ongoing today.

"Branford called me in. He was finishing up the second Buckshot LeFonque album and he needed a couple bass tracks. He asked me to join that band and I was in that band for about a year and a half. Then he put back together the quartet and asked me to join."

That band has been a staple for Revis, but he's also managed other gigs, as well as fashioned his career as a leader. Another important facet is the collaborative trio Tarbaby, with Orrin Evans and Waits, which is still a working band and has an album out on the France-based RogueArt Records label, Fanon. It includes Oliver Lake on sax and Marc Ducret on guitar.

"I'm really fortunate to have relationships that go pretty deep. Orrin is family. The Tarbaby thing is, we're all brothers. It always provides a sense of latitude on and off the bandstand that's really liberating and adds to the music and the overall vibe."

The strong playing and solid career Revis has forged comes out of hard work that included burying himself in the New York scene and learning as much as he could, from experience, from elders, from others working hard on the scene. "I caught the last vestiges of the busy New York jazz scene and influx of young talent," he says. "The emphasis was: you went to New York to get better. Whereas now, guys go and they wanna gig. The overall vibe back then was: a gig is a byproduct of me getting my shit together. In the early '90s, there were two or three jam sessions every night. I caught the last bit of that. Guys older than me would say, 'This is nothing.' They used to have five or six jam sessions a night. Getting out at 5 o'clock in the morning, there were other places to go. It's not the same. Places are closing."

"The emphasis has changed from being part of a continuum. It's more about: my voice, my concept with a lot of young guys, says Revis. That was unheard of. You had a bunch of older guys where you would never say any shit like that. But that seems to get over [nowadays]."

Nonetheless, the music will persevere and outstanding musicians will continue to emerge, he believes.

And Revis' trajectory continues. "Just keep this going," is his plan. "I'm thankful for being in the spot that I am. I want to continue the quartet and I also want to continue the trio with Chris and Andrew. Probably the next thing is another quartet record. Then we'll do stuff with the trio as well."

Photo Credit: Roberto Dominguez
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