Bassist Eric Revis Revels In Curiosity, Versatility

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Bassist Eric Revis leads a quintet on Slipknots Through The Looking Glass, an album released on pianist Kris Davis’ Pyroclastic imprint.

(Photo: Emra Islek)

When bassist and composer Eric Revis arrived in New York during the mid-’90s, he leaned heavily toward straightahead strains of jazz. Still, he didn’t fixate too rigidly on any of the city’s cliques, which often fell along stylistic lines.

“I’ve never considered the idea of a musical hierarchy, based on whatever clique that you’re in, in which you say ‘Oh, this is the shit,’ then start invalidating everything else,” he explained. “If you truly love music, you should be checking out as much shit as possible.”

That love serves Revis well, powering his curiosity and versatility, and enabling him to navigate multiple scenes within the genre’s multifaceted universe. He’s shown as much comfort and ingenuity playing with Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter and Branford Marsalis as he has with Peter Brötzmann, Andrew Cyrille and Ken Vandermark.

Revis’ impressive discography as a leader also reveals his love for various jazz idioms, some of which could be viewed as polarizing. His fascinating new disc, Slipknots Through A Looking Glass (Pyroclastic), superbly reconciles the arguably divergent impulses of straightahead and free-jazz. Strains of funk, blues and minimalism intertwine as the bassist both anchors and propels the music alongside drummer Chad Taylor (and Justin Faulkner on a couple of tunes) and sometimes pianist Kris Davis.

On cuts like the smoldering opener “Baby Renfro” and the enigmatic “Earl And the Three-Fifths Compromise,” alto saxophonist Darius Jones and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry alternate between spitting out riffs and unraveling skulking, blues-laden passages. Throughout Slipknots, Revis projects his identifiable voice on bass—a brawny, imposing sound that forces you to feel and hear his lines in your chest. It’s a sound that Marsalis once described as “physical authority.”

“I was always attracted to people who had that certain timbre—people like Jimmy Blanton, Wilbur Ware, Israel Crosby,” Revis said when asked how he developed his sonic imprint. “Then it was just a matter of going through the process of actualizing that.”

While touring with vocalist Carter, Revis explained, he never traveled with his own bass, but noticed that he was cultivating his voice, despite having to play whatever instrument was available on the gig.

“I hated that, especially at that point of my development,” he said. “Basses are very peculiar instruments. One night, you might get a bass that’s huge, that when playing a whole step [it] will have your fingers spread out; the very next night, you’ll have something which causes your hands to be all cramped together to get to that same note. Or you’ll hit F one night, the next night, it’s E. I hated that.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, traveling with a bass became even more difficult. “I started going through the same angst I had when I was with Betty. But my rational was like, ‘Fuck it, it’s just an hour out of my life,” Revis recalled about deciding to leave his instrument at home for shows outside of New York. “If I don’t get to what I want to get to, that’s fine. It doesn’t determine me as a musician. But what I started realizing is that my sound was mine ... . My voice was coming across on all of the instruments in some form.”

Revis composed much of the music on Slipknots Through A Looking Glass at the Pocantico Center in Tarrytown, a small village in Westchester County. The bassist received a 2017 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, enabling the residency there, and the two-week stay shifted his writing process. Before his time there, Revis would compose small cells of music, let them sit for a while, and then reassess them.

“I like the idea of siting back from the music and not following a certain trajectory that I’m into at that moment,” he said. “Whatever I created, let it speak for itself. I try not to force my likes or dislikes on it. When you start forcing your likes onto the music, eventually you start writing the same shit over and over again. If you have a little bit of repose, you can realize what the music is trying to do.”

At the Pocantico Center, however, Revis was in a secluded, rustic environment with few interruptions. Instead of his usual stop-and-go process, the bassist started developing his ideas further. Not only did he come away with a bunch of new music, two of the compositions—“Dance Of The Evil Toys” and “Nilaste”—appeared on Branford Marsalis’ 2019 disc, The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul.

Marsalis’ father, Ellis, is among the dedicatees of Slipknots; the other are Wallace Roney, Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes and Junius Taylor (drummer Taylor’s father)—all whom died from complications from COVID-19.

After growing up in Fresno, California, and San Antonio, Texas, Revis studied with Ellis, a pianist, during the early-’90s at a jazz program at the University of New Orleans. Revis recalled the experience as “amazing,” noting that Marsalis taught from the Socratic method.

“Ellis was not about handing you the information. That allowed you to pinpoint where you were trying to get to,” Revis said. “With Ellis, everything was based upon a firm sense of logic. You’d go in and play something and he would say, ‘Yo, your left hand sucks!’ But it was also about what do I do to get this shit better. He didn’t afford you the latitude to suck or anything like that. He encouraged dialogue and conversation.”

Learning how to engage in meaningful conversations both on and off the bandstand with musicians of numerous stylistic leanings has catapulted Revis to the highest echelon of jazz bassists. Reflecting on his catholic tastes in music and a willingness to engage with a wide swath of the jazz landscape, Revis explained: “It’s not about being a jack of all trades. But if you aspire to get to the essence of what all this music is, you can dance in any room.” DB



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June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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