With fascinating observations about the creative process, bassist Eric Revis has much to say about his role as a bandleader and composer. He’s a veteran of the New York scene, and now that he’s based in Los Angeles, he’s still one of the busiest sidemen in jazz. Throughout the decades, he’s supported Betty Carter, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Steve Coleman, Lionel Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Orrin Evans, and Branford Marsalis, who says “Eric’s sound is the sound of doom; big, thick, percussive.” Aside from being an in-demand sideman, Revis has become an increasingly-active bandleader, releasing acclaimed records including City of Asylum (2013), Crowded Solitudes (2016), and his most recent release, Sing Me Some Cry (2017).
As part of The Jazz Gallery Fellowship, a residency made possible by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Revis spent several weeks living at the Marcel Breuer House at Pocantico. For the upcoming premiere of this new music at the Gallery, Revis has assembled a band composed of former collaborators on his past albums, including Darius Jones on alto saxophone, Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone, Kris Davis on piano, and Chad Taylor on drums. His time living and working in the sequestered, angular modernist Breuer/Rockefeller house shaped his music and creative flow, he told us in a recent interview. Read more below:
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve got a string of shows coming up in New York, with Kris Davis and Johnathan Blake at The Stone, the premiere of your fellowship commission at The Jazz Gallery, and finally a hit with Roy Hargrove. How’s your preparation going, given how different each gig will be?
Eric Revis: [Laughs] It’s one thing at a time. I’m still in the process of amassing material for my commission premiere. It’s kind of strange having to compartmentalize everything, working on things in different capacities as a composer, bassist, bandleader. It’s pretty chaotic right now. Kris has some really developed, difficult, intense music for her gig. She has certain ideas about things she wants to do, and we discuss a lot back and forth. I need to find out what she wants me to do from section to section. At the gig, I want to be in the performance, not navigating the paper. I want to do a good job, to get into the music, to dance.
TJG: Next week you’ll be playing her music one night, then she’ll be playing yours the next. Do you think your relationship changes depending on who’s in charge?
ER: I don’t think my musical relationship changes with anybody that I play with, really. Music is not proprietary. If you’re of the idea that “This is mine, and I want you to do this” in an egotistical way, then you’re fucked. I’m fortunate in that with the people I play with, there seems to be an overarching ideal of “We’re doing this together: What do you need from me?” It’s about sitting together collectively at the table, rather than a more dictatorial arrangement.
TJG: What can go wrong in the former scenario? I’m sure a lot of cats hire a band and say exactly how they want it to be, and that arrangement is the communal starting point.
ER: Yeah, but usually, if people are that hard-nosed about it, you can hear it on the bandstand. Today, everybody’s a composer, everybody’s got a concept. That’s anathema to art. You’re not supposed to have a concept. You’re supposed to be navigating a trajectory to get to another place of artistic development. Once you hunker down and say “This is my concept,” you’re screwed. You’ve put a period on what should be some Henry Miller-type shit. Keep going, keep developing. Now, the hard-line specificity of conveying a certain idea, that’s a bit different. Cecil Taylor, or Ornette’s band, they rehearsed hours a day, for years. But that was more about inculcating guys into a certain sense of direction, not “I need you to hit this 32nd note right here, then do this, then that.”
TJG: And with the upcoming Roy Hargrove gig?
ER: I heard Roy has some new tunes—that’ll be more a matter of people coming together in a brotherhood/friendship type situation. I’m looking forward to getting through to that [laughs]. That’ll be fun.
TJG: Tell me a bit about the music you’ve written for the fellowship commission.
ER: When I began the residency, living alone up there at the Rockefeller place for a couple of weeks was a pretty daunting proposition. My writing has never been ancillary, per se, but I’ve never had a dedicated amount of time to do it. So I approached the residency with a sense of uncertainty and excitement. Once I got up to house, stuff just started coming. I had all these ideas, these nuggets that developed in different ways. I also ended up with a number of pieces that I could combine, so there was a singularity about the work where I could use parts and pieces to make something new entirely.
TJG: So the residency afforded you a place to work?
ER: Yes, there’s a house on the Rockefeller Estate that was made available for this residency. It’s the Marcel Breuer House. It’s beautiful. It was built in the late 40s at the Museum of Modern Art as a model of the house of the future. Really hip design, very straight lines. Apparently, John D. Rockefeller saw the house, had it chopped up, and rebuilt on his property.
TJG: While you were living there, did you get really into the story of this house?
ER: I really did. Nothing has changed; it’s as if it were hermetically sealed. They’ve had the house on the property for decades. At one point, they switched out the furniture for exact replicas of the originals. The property has a kind of panorama of the Hudson Valley. Three o’clock in the morning, I’d be working on something, and suddenly there’d be a family of possums sitting at the sliding glass door [laughs]. It was really beautiful. I was sequestered, in a way. My schedule has been such that it was really nice to just be away, collect my thoughts, and work.
TJG: Looking now at the music you wrote then, do you see anything in your writing that reflects that space?
ER: Definitely. I think that unbeknownst to me, there was a line of something that I was going for. Sometimes when you’re busy, you’re checking out a lot of music, and it influences you, but takes a while to gestate. Those influences come out as they seep into what you’re doing. Being at the Breuer house afforded the opportunity for me to look at what came out of my writing and ask, “Where did that come from?”
TJG: Is there any way that backstory will come out through your music for audiences to hear?
ER: Ah, I mean, you can never know. There’s a place for explaining things, but I’m in a phase where I don’t want to explain myself. For certain things, there has to be a narrative. But, having spent quite a bit of my career explaining stuff, I currently adhere to the John Cage philosophy that ‘artists are but cameras,’ and the listener takes the picture. Whatever comes out of my work, hopefully it facilitates something in you. If I try to control the narrative, impose an idea, people will listen and miss the point. If you say, “This is purple,” people will listen and say “Man, I don’t hear purple.” Does that make any sense?
TJG: Sure, but there’s a difference between saying “This is purple,” and “This is a sunset, inspired by many colors, including purple,” or something like that. A guiding image or idea, but not too specific.
ER: Yeah, but you know, specificity is in the eye of the beholder. Anything may be too much for some people, and nothing is enough for everybody. Specificity about how be told to think. Anyway, the process is what means something to me. That’s the important thing. The true meaning in art in is the process of getting there, and people often don’t realize it. How many revisions did it take? How did those colors combine? Was this intentional, was that accidental?
TJG: Even though you’re moving away from specificity, I feel more drawn in and engaged with the music already.
ER: It’s fun, man! It’s a journey. You try to refrain from… What’s that? [inaudible from background] 6 p.m.? Ok. I have to get the kids later, go to basketball practice. See, that’s the other side of things. That’s the real shit right there. All this high-falutin art talk [laughs]. No, the toilet is broken, there’s an important meeting tonight, remember this and that. That’s the real process behind it all.
TJG: So with both Darius Jones and Bill McHenry playing your music, what’s been your mental process about thinking of their sounds together on stage?
ER: You know, this group has a history. Chad, Darius, and Bill were together on my record “In Memory Of Things Yet Seen.” I’ve done trio records with Kris, and the new quartet record has Kris and Chad. These groups are coming together in a very interesting way. When I think of Darius and Bill, they have a very dynamic simpatico. They’re stylistically divergent yet quite similar in surprising ways. Bill’s been living in Spain, Darius has his projects, we’ve all been busy. So I’m looking forward to seeing how that relationship, that dialogue, has evolved in the time since our last record. I’m so fortunate to work with extraordinarily open people. Everyone is concerned with moving towards this unknown thing together, this new music, this trial and error. Cool people, man. Cool people make good music.
Eric Revis presents his 2017 Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 20th, and Thursday, December 21st, 2017. The group features Mr. Revis on bass, Darius Jones on alto saxophone, Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone, Kris Davis on piano, and Chad Taylor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.