Nearly a decade ago, totemic German free-jazz reedist Peter Brötzmann told me that he’d recently played with an exciting bassist. Those aren’t words you often hear from Brötzmann—he’d once explained that he wants a bassist to “just be there,” by which he meant occupy a certain place in the music and not do anything too fancy. “Oh, and he plays with Marsalis,” Brötzmann said. “So what.”
Eric Revis was indeed (and still is) a member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, where he’s “been there” (and a lot more) for north of 20 years. The fact that Revis found a natural way to work in that relatively mainstream context while diving into the deep end of freely improvised music says a lot about his state of mind. He’s open to new adventures, whether racing through post-“Giant Steps” chord changes or pushing and pulling at unpulsed time with Brötzmann and drummer Nasheet Waits. Many players move from groove to groove. Only a few try to swing this far in both directions. Nobody does it more convincingly than Revis.
Part of this has to do with experience. Revis came up in the 1990s, playing in the “jazz university” of Betty Carter’s band after studying with Branford’s dad, Ellis Marsalis, at the University of New Orleans. He’s learned how to fit into a myriad of jazz settings, not only with legends such as pianist McCoy Tyner, postbop tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton but also with younger figures, among them guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, and alto saxophonist and M-Base mastermind Steve Coleman. In 1997 he joined the Marsalis foursome, with whom he’s recorded eight records.
Eric Revis Quartet
Sun 9/2, 3-4 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion
Some folks with credentials like that might get hung up on them, worrying that they shouldn’t take risks that could tarnish their reputations. Revis seems immune to those thoughts. He’s so adept at bridging the distance between camps—whether that distance is real or merely perceived—that he can seem like a diplomat or peacemaker. “I have also never subscribed to the notion of music hierarchy,” says Revis. “Betty Carter once told me, ‘Take every note like your life depends on it . . . because it does.'”
I’d come to understand Revis as an essential sideman, and I was used to hearing his beautiful, flexible bass behind the scenes. So when he debuted as a bandleader, headlining the 2004 CD Tales of the Stuttering Mime, it was a bit of a surprise. The album is super ambitious, culling music he’d been stockpiling for a long while and creating a crazy quilt of different ideas and lineups, not just from jazz but also from chamber music and structured improvisation—a pent-up house finally finding release. He followed it in 2009 with Laughter’s Necklace of Tears, which was likewise all over the map stylistically speaking but used a single band. Since then he’s issued a series of trio and quartet recordings—all with conventional jazz instrumentation—that prove he can maximize the diversity of his programs without varying his personnel and inspire new kinds of interaction without inventing new kinds of ensembles.
“There are certain universal characteristics that appeal to me in music: tone, rhythmic and melodic sophistication, conveyed in a truly honest way,” Revis says. “I approach every situation with that same mind-set. And luckily I have been able to surround myself with people who have the same approach.”
His most recent band has been working together consistently for two years and has one release, 2017’s Sing Me Some Cry (Clean Feed). A quartet with members drawn from his previous groups, it’s uniquely equipped to fulfill Revis’s dream of a creative-music conflux.
Pianist Kris Davis, with whom Revis has made a pair of wonderful trio records (Gerald Cleaver plays drums on one, Andrew Cyrille on the other), is one of the greatest stars to emerge in improvised music in the past decade. Her solo performance at Experimental Sound Studio this past March was almost beyond belief—working inside the piano and at the keys, she summoned an astonishment of colors, textures, and tones. Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark, who’s worked with Revis for the past decade, is a like-minded powerhouse, his own multidirectional predilections and massive warehouse of historical knowledge well-known in these parts. He and Davis are both thoughtful composers as well, which adds immeasurably to the quartet’s collective vibe. Drummer Chad Taylor, another veteran of Revis’s bands, is the ideal player to pull together loose threads, sometimes acting as a motor with his organic rhythmic feel and sometimes pulling anchor to set out to plumb the unfathomable.
When the Eric Revis Quartet played two nights at the Green Mill last August, they made it clear how these parts work together. Moving from Braxtonian linear complexity to wide-open improvisation to rocking-horse swing, the group’s music (with tunes by every member) was spectacular and generous. When I ask Revis to say a few words about each of his bandmates, he doles out equilateral praise: “I love Ken’s honesty. I love Kris’s ability and willingness to make the most out of any musical situation. I love Chad’s ability to always approach things with new perspectives.” And just as he does with the band, he brings everything together to make a collective statement: “I love all of their minds!” v