Goldie Award article on Phillip Greenlief

Author: Derk Richardson
Description: Goldie Award article on Phillip Greenlief

Goldies 2000

Phillip Greenlief

THE PAST YEAR or so has seen an explosion in Phillip Greenlief’s recorded output, documented on such albums as the Lost Trio’s Remembrance of Songs Past, Trio Putanesca’s Live at Yoshi’s, and Russian Notebooks with Covered Pages. But you have to keep an ear to the ground to keep track of this prolific musician who issues his albums (plus those by such Bay Area compatriots as Alex Candelaria, Ashley Adams, Jettison Slinky, and Todd Sickafoose) on his own Evander Music label and, despite appearances at Bruno’s and Yoshi’s, typically shows up off the beaten track at the Albion in San Francisco, the Avalon Café in Eureka, and Cato’s Ale House and Tuva Space in Oakland. Greenlief’s music veers off the beaten track as well. For much of the past decade he has made remarkable jazz and improvised music by linking his original compositions to literature, exploring the relationships between images found in texts and music. Playing saxophones, clarinet, flutes, and trumpet, the USC graduate has sought to make new musical meaning of Joyce’s Ulysses, Ionesco’s Macbett, Kafka’s The Trial, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

That emphasis is beginning to change, says Greenlief, who also has been heard with the Crushing Spiral Ensemble, Big Lou’s Polka Casserole, Kaleidoscopic Sextet, the Roberto Miranda Quintet, Wadada Leo Smith, and They Might Be Giants. “I feel like I’ve been telling other people’s stories, because they give me a sense of expressing something in music. I’m always asking other musicians, ‘What story are you trying to tell the audience?’ ”

A trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, in the summer of 1998 marked a turning point for Greenlief, and Russian Notebooks documents the experience in music for reeds and guitars. “I decided it was time to start telling my own stories,” he says. “And I feel like I’m clear about what I’m trying to express when I sit down and write a piece.”

A close look at Greenlief’s own recordings shows how he taps a pool of diverse Bay Area and southern California musicians, including bassists Dan Seamans and Trevor Dunn, drummers Tom Hassett and Scott Amendola, and guitarists Adam Levy, Nels Cline, and G.E. Stinson. “Every time I set out on a new project, I choose a new group,” he explains, “because I hope it will allow me to discover something new in my playing. Each trio has a different objective, concept, and intention, and that allows me new ways of seeing myself and expressing myself. Otherwise you show up and do the same thing all the time.” That’s a charge no one dares level at this gifted and restless composer and performer. (Derk Richardson)

sfSound Group @ ODC

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: sfSound Group @ ODC

There’s No Place Like Home
sfSound Group @ ODC

It was easy to enjoy the recent sfSound concert at ODC in the good old Mission District of San Francisco (especially pleasant that a few gems from a once plentiful crop of arts spaces weren’t ground to powder during the good ole’ blunder). Matt Ingalls has put a lot of energy into this series and anyone with even a lump of gray tissue between their ears will be pleased to learn that the effort has earned them a new home at ODC Theater. Ingalls mumbled plaintively that ODC will likely move in a year (to a larger and nearby nest). One might dream that ODC will remember to bring sfSound along for the ride – the new space has the makings of an even finer performing arts complex. Audience: Snap out of that trendy complacency immediately and let ODC know it’s the right stuff to retain sfSound in their little shop of horrors! Shout at them directly through your telephone device, or try lurking near the ticket counter and pass notes to them at upcoming shows.

I imagined while driving through the pouring rain on a Monday night that the audience would be slight, but there was a near full box of glamorous misfits milling about the place. The evening opened with a performance of John Cage’s Invisible Landscape #1 (1939). This most satisfying effort of suppressed sound was realized on piano (Christopher Jones), percussion (Russell Greenberg) and electronics (Christopher Burns) (electronics originally composed for “record player” – how peanut butter and jelly is that?). The performance was appropriately drier than an above-average Pinot Grigio and equally tasty in all its visionary brilliance (would there be a “new” reductionist movement if Cage had not opened the door?). Landscapes comes from his early pieces for percussion, which helped to define a medium slice of his stylistic aesthetics by removing expressive qualities while retaining formal substance through the proliferation of rhythm. Diametrically opposed to his more emotive works of the same period, there was an urge in these sketches to erase the sonic trail leading back to the 19th century. The trio admirably squeezed great slices of citric sound from the score, which emerged into the evening’s program with a clear and concise opening statement.

It is possible that Christopher Jones’ transcription shoplifted one too many sparklers from the timbral spectrum that illuminates Anton Webern’s miraculous 5 Pieces for Orchestra. (Students: was it Jones’ intent that his arrangement echo the minimalist concerns Cage played with in his Imaginary Landscape?) On the other hand, the quartet’s luminous performance revealed Webern’s motivic brilliance in all its meticulous innocence. The reluctant Second Viennese Schoolmaster’s work is never easy to realize, and it is a worthy testament to Kyle Bruckman (oboe & English horn), Matt Ingalls (clarinet), Christopher Jones (piano) and Russell Greenberg (percussion) that they employed a stable performance of this particularly thorny work on what I’m sure was an impossibly narrow rehearsal path.

My favorite episode was a new work by Anthony Braxton (Composition 341). I could have listened to the whole thing, which would have taken an hour before springing the irresistible open sections on an impossibly patient audience. Composition 341 is a familiar yet terrifying tightrope routine of rhythm and intervallic eruption that has graced Braxton’s late work. The improvising and on the spot arrangement strategies were effective, offering everyone lots of space to invent and infect, and the ensemble’s sound fabric had an ample supply of sumptuously evil textures. It was chaotic at times, but never so dense that you couldn’t pull out any of the strands and examine them. A double-Dutch legion of props to David Arend (bass), Bruckman, Ingalls, Greenberg, John Ingle (saxophone), Jones, Toyoji Tomita (trombone), John Shiurba (electric guitar), and Eric Ulman (violin) for a funhouse full of trap doors, geeky buzzers, flashing colors, extended technique whoopee cushions, and scary sound monsters.

The performance of the extended work lumen was most pleasurable on every account. Composer & choreographer David Bithell achieved a great deal of mileage from simple visual/sound motifs, and it all moved admirably forward with a fresh breeze of humor that took the audience captive and nuzzled them into submission. The live music interacted with the taped music about as seamlessly as you could possibly expect. All was beautifully sounded throughout the space. And lo and behold: a flock of clever gadgets floated all about the place and repeatedly stole the show. Oversized gloves and a host of associated icons floated on the air and insulted, teased, and aggravated a trumpet, a composer, his (and others) shadow(s), and many a clever cue card. Information drifted through the experience like junky hummingbirds – gamelan vibrations soothed the receptors and urged the audience to trance their way through a uniquely sparse surrealist landscape. Yumsky, yumsky!

The Hear and Now : ROVA at Other Minds

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: The Hear and Now : ROVA at Other Minds

The Hear and Now
Raskin and ROVA with guests at Other Minds 10th

I went to the opening night show at the Other Minds Festival presented at Yerba Buena Gardens in SF. Thursday’s concert included compositions by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, Polish composer Hanna Kulenty and one of our finest local artists, Jon Raskin.

The performance presented works by the composers in the order listed above. I will be brief in my descriptions of the first two performances. I have tried to live by the saying taught to many of us by our mothers: “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything”. Of course there’s nothing wrong with negative or harsh criticism if the intentions are to aid in the development of a work, but in this case, I really don’t have anything constructive to say, nor do I feel that the so called “Avant Garde” works on the first half of the program had anything to do with new music, apart from the fact that Kulenty’s piece was a concerto for ¼ tone flute – a rare and admittedly modern instrument.

My criticisms of the opening works stem from major aesthetic differences with the intentions of the composers. I admit that I don’t have an ear for folk songs (sans passion) parading as new music, which was the case with the short pieces by Tigran Mansurian, (which is NOT to say that I don’t like folk music!). Secondly, my tastes for composition were not in concert with the pedestrian thematic content and emotionally bankrupt music of Hanna Kulenty (although I did enjoy aspects of Anne La Berge’s performance on her above mentioned instruments, especially the unaccompanied cadenza). What I would much rather discuss is the music composed (perhaps organized is a better word) by Jon Raskin and performed by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet with special guests.

First a few words about those special guests and their respective instruments. Forgive my not terribly informative descriptions. Min Xio-Fen played pipa (a Chinese lute-like instrument), Kyaw Kyaw Naing played pat waing (circle drum – a series of tuned membranophones pitched in an array of contrasting pentatonic scales), Jiebing Chen played erhu (a two-string violin, played in horizontal fashion), Shoko Hikage played koto (a Japanese 18-string instrument well known to the fans of Hikage, Larner and Masaoka), Sang Won Park played kayagum(s) (imagine smaller versions of the koto played on tables – musician stands while playing as opposed to the crouched position assumed while playing koto), Jim Santi Owens played tabla (Indian hand-drums) and tarang and Gino Robair conducted. Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Larry Ochs played saxophones and were arranged from left to right on the stage in that order.

In short, ROVA was immersed in a section of instruments associated with music from Korea, Japan, Burma, China and India, and the quartet sounded fantastic in this context. They supported and blended timbres in ways that created a new musical language that I felt successfully deconstructed the traditional approaches to everyone’s respective instruments. The music that emerged seemed like a true world music, but in a way that seemed similar to the approach used by James Joyce when he created a world language in Finnegans Wake by mixing phonemes and syllables from the 15+ languages that he spoke fluently to create hybrid words, as opposed to the way that Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman played with African percussionists. Decades after those records by Sanders and company have emerged on the scene, their earlier efforts sound like two distinct cultures inhabiting the same room but not necessarily speaking the same language (not to downplay those efforts – which have their respective merits – perhaps Raskin’s efforts could not have been possible if it were not for those earlier models). But The Hear and Now produced a music that sounded as if all the musicians were speaking the same language.

I believe that out of all the situations I’ve heard ROVA in the context of playing in a large(r) ensemble, this was the most satisfying to my ears. It captured the feel of some of my favorite recordings of Japanese Classical Music (on those Nonesuch Ensemble Nipponia recordings for example). The sound events/environments unfolded in a meditative that kept me engaged throughout the entire piece. Although the music was generally quiet in nature and practice, the large ensemble’s music produced a quiet intensity that sustained enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat – I was consistently excited to hear what would happen next.

I also thought (from my perception on how things were arranged) that Gino did a great job of keeping things moving at just the right pace throughout and developed a wonderful overall structure of the work. This was a high point of the music for me and it relates back to the feel of traditional Japanese music and the way it slowly unfolds over time. Robair was responsible for presenting an array of cue cards that gave instructions on aspects of the music related to tempo/meter, intensity, tonal qualities, and offered the musicians a chance to change the texture or feel of any given event, initiate new sound events, or direct musicians to respond to existing materials. The conductor could also cue a variety of predetermined games that related to pitch collections, note lengths, repetitions, sound events, trills, vibrato effects, and note attacks.

In addition to the relatively new role played by the conductor (instructing them on ways to play, opposed to keeping time and making sure the musicians know where their entrance is), ROVA’s Radar practices allowed a great deal of freedom for the musicians to generate composed and improvised musical action. In terms of the philosophical aspect of the music (and similar to the music of Anthony Braxton that has enjoyed a great deal of recent discussion on BA NEW MUS), The Hear and Now allows a variety of people to initiate action – a collection of democracies, rather than a totalitarian model where the composer acts as dictator, or a form of democracy where action is predicated by the ensembles’ leader (soloist). In the context of this music, everyone on stage has the opportunity to be a leader and instigator.

If I had any criticism of the music, I wanted to hear more small ensemble pairings of eastern instruments with the saxophone(s). As an orchestrator (when I write for large ensemble) I am usually obsessed with getting all the possible solo/duo/trio combinations into the light. My sense is that The Hear and Now was about 30 – 40 minutes. For that length of time, I would rather have heard, say, a duo with Ackley and the pipa player than listening to two percussion duos (although the second one they did was a real gem!). This is a small concern, and it really is a concern that comes out of my personal aesthetics.

To its credit, this work could be performed again and again and never play out the same way twice. This makes for rehearsing a work like The Hear and Now particularly difficult. As Robair related to me, you try something in rehearsal and it works great, but you don’t necessarily want to try to recreate that something again in performance. The other disappointment I’m left with is that I probably won’t hear this work performed again for a long time.

The Search Continues

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: The Search Continues

The Search Continues

After seeing the request to write something about a significant musical event over the past year, I found it hard to come up with much. My favorite experiences of art come when I’m completely confused or disoriented by the experience. I like things that take me outside of my critical self and into something that draws me in without necessarily knowing that it’s happening. There wasn’t a lot of that going on this year, although there were moments. In particular, I could cite:

1) A barely attended performance by Frank Gratkowski and Chris Brown at CNMAT allowed listeners to revel in a range of improvised sound areas, examined with both ecstatic abandon and microscopic details of rhythm, phrase, timbre and dynamics.

2) Evan Parker, Alexander Von Schlippenbach and Paul Lytton played for us at the Community Music Center in SF and sounded just the way you would expect these three great innovators to sound – which was somehow revelatory while never surpassing any expectations.

3) The 10-piece Industrial Jazz Group came up from LA to work out on a bevy of compositions penned by pianist Andrew Durkin that led its eager and overly-talented players through fascinating transformations of melody and form that somehow blended elements of Ellington, Mingus, Gil Evans, Braxton’s Creative Orchestra projects, Reich (on finer days), Feldman, and Louis Jordan’s jump bands of the late 1950’s with more romp and humor than irony.

4) Braxton came to town recently and gave most of the new music scene here a host of valuable lessons that he has been teaching us for over 30 years.

In short, some great moments of things that we’ve come to know, but little examples that one could confuse with the heralding of a new century (perhaps a best of the end of the last century?). Little indeed that could describe the formation of a new century that has so far been dominated by tragedy – both here in the U.S. and, as usual, abroad, where the unnumbered victims suffer the manifestations of our very own tax dollars.

We’ve all seen tragedies before (or at least read about them) but what makes the last few years particularly frustrating is that no one out there seems to be able to call the perpetrators on their deeds or hold them accountable. This silence (and a myriad of related events) has infected the arts thusly: 1) what little arts funding there was out there is drying up. 2) ”They” (whoever they are) are too distracted by the malaise described above to support the arts (this activity is not without a long line of historical precedents). 3) And, perhaps worst of all, artists are swimming in pools of apathy and ignoring their role as cultural architects, spiritual cheerleaders, or critical watchdogs, but somehow not ignoring their role as public masturbators.

In the midst of this malaise described above, an event did occur, however, that shocked the scene and brought us close enough to personal tragedy to cut through layers of defense mechanisms and other forms of artifice long enough to recognize something valuable in the midst of our loss and suffering. That occurrence was the unexpected death of Matthew Sperry and the large waves and ripples of support that spread in its aftermath throughout Matthew’s family and the creative music scene at large.

I helped to organize a concert to raise funds for Matthew’s family around that time. But to begin, I should assert the Slusser clause and say that I am immediately suspect in writing about an event that I not only helped to produce but also performed in as well. Actually, it wasn’t the performances that shook me (even though more than a few of them were truly inspired). Instead, it was the way that the community came together that evening (and in the days, weeks and months surrounding the tragedy, not the least of which was the remarkable event thrown at the Victoria with Tom Waits, et. al.) in a spirit of compassion that made many of us thankful to be a part of what’s happening here. Matthew’s passing created a response that was bigger than any one of us (or any of our ensembles or factions) and that something was, namely, Matthew’s spirit, which, upon its release into our enormous universe, unified us in a way that the best planned festivals and self-produced concerts rarely, if ever, are able to achieve.

Those are some of the moments that made me glad that I am here with all of you at this time. That said, the inevitable question that I have to ask myself is: does someone have to die in order for us to drop our usual attitudes and critical stances in order to accomplish something that could move so many of us so deeply?

ROVA: Live in Petaluma

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: ROVA: Live in Petaluma

Achieving Spontaneity in Controlled Environments
ROVA: Live in Petaluma

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet has created a body of work that considers an array of compositional sources and performance practices. They have proliferated an improvised music that utilizes open and predetermined forms. The quartet has also embraced composition, which has led them into clearly defined spaces and the contributing composers (both within the group and commissioned from beyond) have expanded the cultural identity of the music. ROVA has developed Radar, a performance practice that allows for predetermined activities to occur via hand signals amongst the musicians. The players have their own unique musical conceptions that are shaped by their diverse musical influences and all of these modes of expression find their way into ROVA’s music through original composition and from utterances forged in the moment.

As I sat down for a few sets at the Zebulon Lounge, I wondered if it was possible to find a microcosm of ROVA’s work in one concert. Can many years of music-making emerge in a single evening?

First Set
When I arrived, the group was playing a composition that gave Bruce Ackley some great playing space, accompanied by some written figures cued by Steve Adams. The motifs were clever and generated a lot of humor. These motifs continued behind the baritone solo and increased in rapidity until I nearly burst into hysterics. The piece changed radically after that and it seemed that I had walked in on a suite of short, tightly composed environments, presenting intervallic shapes that yielded some nice overtones among the upper voices.

Then they played one of Zorn’s Masada pieces arranged by Larry Ochs that featured the Radar practices in open sections, which seemed the best bits of the selection. There wasn’t a lot of melodic influence from the composition in the improvised sections, which was mildly disconcerting. Nevertheless, the music they made in the open space was fantastic. It crackled with an electric spontaneity and had clear, constructivist ideas that never bogged down but rather kept mutating and evolving in surprising ways.

The compositional elements in Jon Raskin’s Jukebox Detroit created distinct passages with lots of character and his ostinato figures on baritone made for mad grooving. But the work didn’t seem to offer Ackley or Ochs the inspiration to help listeners understand why they are exploring blues forms in 2003. They continued with some wildly energetic improvising between Ochs and Adams that freshened things up and reminded me of some of the youthful exuberance I heard back in 1980 on first exposure to the band.

The piece continued, but lost some of its momentum and I felt the overall shape didn’t balance out – too many sections perhaps distorted what started out as a clear conception. Later, Jon mentioned that Jukebox was a vehicle for Bruce, so I wondered if they had moved into another composition and I missed the transition. If so, the “second half” of the suite or medley didn’t seem well paired with Jukebox – it felt a little like a long journey from somewhere specific to nowhere in particular. (Although, how can you criticize in art what most of us do in life nearly every day?)

Second Set
ROVA started the second set with a reading of Don van Vliet’s Steel Me Softly Through Snow, which started with swirling phrases that led to a short soprano figure that sounded a bit like a night at the circus. More composed fragments occurred (along with a hocket or two) that allowed the role of improviser to be passed about like a juggling act. This action repeated and accelerated until the orchestration dropped down for a memorable unaccompanied passage on baritone. This was a really well conceived sonic landscape and exists in memory as my favorite piece of the evening.

During the rest of the second set the roles of composition and improvisation became increasingly blurred. Both changed rapidly and these areas allowed players to “solo” against 1) written melodic shapes, 2) suggested tones creating interesting intervals, 3) pure sound textures generated from extended techniques, multi-phonics, etc. This type of interplay engages the listener in a unique way that makes multiple listening on CD or hearing them in a club equally (and highly) rewarding. One of the more valuable contributions to this music is the group composition and controlled freedoms that occur when ROVA activates in Radar mode. It seems to bring out the best of their skills as improvisers in a setting where form and orchestration can change at the drop of a hat or, (more specifically), the cue of a hand.

Throughout the evening, the ensemble’s living history produced great group communication, exciting improvisation that occurred in a wide variety of sonic environments, and the composed forms were played with humor, great energy, and concentration.

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA

A Look Through the Keyhole at John Shiurba’s 5 X 5

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: A Look Through the Keyhole at John Shiurba’s 5 X 5

One of John Shiurba’s recent releases, 5 X 5 (5 ex 5, not 5 by 5), presents music with stark contrasts – music that is composed and music that is improvised.

The co-existence of these two styles in the same sound environment is not a new practice. Theme and variation have played out over the long course of western music since the Renaissance. More recently, jazz musicians used melodies or tunes that serve as a springboard for improvisation along with chord progressions the improviser must follow to assure that spontaneity exists within predetermined form. This musical practice is not only found in jazz, but also in the blues, rock, and other folk forms.

In post-bop improvising (free jazz), Ornette Coleman gave permission to improvise with only the melody dancing in your head as a guide. More recently, composers have combined these elements and stirred in a variety of compositional forms where an array of notation practices and improvisational games can exist side by side or within the framework of a large-scale work (i.e., works by Braxton and others from the AACM community and beyond).

Shiurba’s practice on 5 X 5, however, is to present composed material but not to allow it to inform the improvised sections of the work. Shiurba noted in conversation that this idea was contrary to jazz. I should mention that it is contrary to most forms of western music where theme and variation is present. Is this idea a new one? How, if at all, does the composed music influence the improvised music? If it’s not there to influence the improvisation, what is its purpose?

I like to have questions that accompany a listening experience, so I started with, why present material and not develop it? It’s an interesting exercise, but the music on 5 X 5 rings as anything but music for the sake of exercise. The quintet features guitarist/composer/conductor Shiurba, clarinetist Matt Ingalls, Dan Plonsey on reeds and violin, bassist Matthew Sperry (to whom the music on this disc is dedicated), and Gino Robair on percussion; a small legion of improvisers well equipped to explore the sound potential of their instruments without predetermined material or strategies.

An image came to me while I was listening to 5 X 5 that helped to conceptualize the work. I visualized construction sites in those old silent movies (ala Buster Keaton), with pedestrians lined along fences looking through empty knotholes to witness the construction of a skyscraper. In the 5 X 5 music, it’s as if the ensemble is walking through a deconstruction zone of improvised music (where the players tangle with melody, rhythm, harmony, phrasing, or to develop language elements of their instrument), stopping occasionally to peer through the keyhole at construction sites (where bursts of composed activity occur). The composer may have used written material to hold it up against improvisation in order to achieve stark sound shifts.

During the performance of 5 X 5, Shiurba cued the written material at his discretion. It sounds as if the performance was created as a whole, and track numbers were later assigned to notate composed entries.

I asked if there were other instructions for the musicians besides, “improvise until I cue the next composed element”. Shiurba revealed that there were no other specific directions on how the improvisations would unfold. In contrast, Robair mentioned that some improvised sections were assigned to specific players, and that player would lead the improvisation – other musicians in the group would support that person’s improvised journey. Sometimes, he went on, the section had no instructions at all (no specified leader), and that to his mind, it seems hard today to tell which sections had instructions and which sections did not.

If you’re counting, the CD has six tracks, (not five). The first track serves as an improvised introduction to the first composed entry. Most of the composed parts reveal simple melodies – (in contrast to other composed works by Shiurba). The composed bits have an almost goofy quality – a bit of humor is present in them – on one occasion serenity finds its way to the writing. Some improvisations are driven by sound exploration, some have melodic clarity and thematic development consistent only with localized passages. The improvised music is often more dense than the clear motives that occur in composed sections.

Overall, the composition and the intuitive composing by the musicians in the spontaneous sections cover a vast range of expression, and yet there is a thematic unity that holds throughout. Both composer and musician have shaped this overall unity – the members of the group have a significant shared history that adds a depth to the music that could have otherwise gone unstated.

Phillip Greenlief Article in The Chronicle

Author: Andrew Gilbert
Description: Phillip Greenlief Article in The Chronicle

Musician pushes creativity in clubs and in the classroom

– Andrew Gilbert, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, October 29, 2004

The Bay Area’s do-it-yourself ethos has produced a bevy of dazzlingly creative musicians, but few have put the philosophy to work as effectively as Phillip Greenlief.

A creative force on the Bay Area’s improvisational music scene for more than a decade, the big-toned tenor and soprano saxophonist has sparked a steady flow of compelling projects as a performer, bandleader and composer, but he’s just as influential behind the scenes as an indefatigable organizer.

Since 1995, the nexus of his musical activity has been Evander Music (, an umbrella entity that has become a vital forum for underexposed musicians, both through Greenlief-produced concert series and recordings by the saxophonist and other artists.

While Greenlief initially created the label to release an album by Trio Putanesca, a chamber jazz ensemble he created with bassist Dan Seamans and guitarist Adam Levy (best known as a member of Norah Jones’ band), Evander’s impressive catalog now features more than two dozen releases, by artists such as guitarist Bill Horvitz, pianist Graham Connah, drummer Jeremy Steinkoler and his bands Mo’Fone and J. Steinkoler, and an extraordinary duo Good For Cows featuring bassist Devon Hoff and drummer Ches Smith.

“I’ve gotten so much from this community,” says Greenlief, 45. “I want to do my little part in keeping culture alive in the Bay Area. My agenda for Evander is that the projects fit into these three categories: jazz, improvised music or original composition. So it’s pretty open.”

Greenlief’s own projects often reflect his passion for literature and film. For instance, bassist Ashley Adams’ ardent 1997 free improv session “Flowers for Mrs. Dalloway,” featuring Greenlief and drummer Michel Dumonceau, flowed out of a series of conversations between her and Greenlief about Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”

More recently, Greenlief’s Kaleidoscopic Sextet recorded his extended work “Beauty is a Rare Ticket That Exploded,” which explores the music of Ornette Coleman arranged according to the “cut up” literary methodology of Beat icon William S. Burroughs.

But sustaining a scene takes more than presenting and recording music. It can depend upon a resource as basic as shelter. While forging strong musical ties with some of the region’s most inventive musicians, Greenlief and his wife, grant writer Sarah Boehm, have turned their Oakland house into a way station for an international cast of traveling artists who would otherwise be priced out of the Bay Area by a dearth of sustaining gigs.

“He’s definitely one of the major voices here as a player and organizer, a tireless person who is constantly making things happen,” says Philip Gelb, a master of the Japanese end-blown wooden flute known as the shakuhachi, who performs with Greenlief and saxophonist Ron Raskin in the group Wind Trio of Alphaville. The trio, which is releasing its first album “Breathless” next month on Evander, took its name from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian film “Alphaville.” It’s entirely in keeping with Greenlief’s buck-stops-here philosophy that he leapt into action when word went out about the impending demise of the Jazz House, the south Berkeley performance space that has become an indispensable East Bay forum for jazz and new music. A recent member of the nonprofit venue’s board of directors, Greenlief has taken a leading role in searching for a new space, while organizing a series of fund-raising concerts during the Jazz House’s final nights on Adeline Street.

Over the past decade, the Lost Trio has been Greenlief’s steadiest ensemble. For many years the group performed monthly at Cato’s Ale House in Piedmont, but lately has been without a steady gig. Featuring bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett, the group celebrates its 10th anniversary and the release of its new album, “Boxcar Samovar,” on Nov. 13 at 21 Grand in Oakland.

It’s a loose-limbed band marked by an off-the-cuff poetic sensibility, full of earthy humor and soaring lyricism. Always looking to re-imagine a familiar tune, the band has developed a book that ranges from the music of Hank Williams and the Grateful Dead to Thelonious Monk and Billy Strayhorn.

“The challenge is how can we arrange these tunes in a way that’s interesting,” Greenlief says. “That’s what we’ve really been trying to work on the last couple of years, to get past the convention of head, sax solo, bass solo, out. We’re starting to play with that a lot more. ”

In much the same way Greenlief has labored in the trenches to secure a strong foundation for the Bay Area’s creative music scene, he has been an innovative force in Oakland’s beleaguered public school system. As the founder of the Lafayette School Mentoring Project, which pairs more the 30 percent of the students at Oakland’s Lafayette Elementary School with tutors, he has played a key role in lifting the school off the list of the lowest 10 performing schools in the Oakland Unified School District. Supported by an anonymous $1 million grant administered through the Tides Foundation, the program is now serving 75 students who work one-on-one with tutors after school on academic subjects. The program is seeking volunteers to work with the 45 students on the waiting list for a tutor.

“I’m giving people tools to help the kids, which is really giving them tools to help themselves,” Greenlief said. “Evander is kind of the same thing. I help organize things and give people resources and help them learn how to do what they want to do, whether it’s how to be a good tutor or how to get your record out there. Not that I’m an expert on that — the music business is so bizarre. I feel like I’m really serving the community. I don’t know if I’m doing a good job, but I’m certainly devoting all my time and energy to it.”

Problems and Solutions

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: Problems and Solutions

Eleven Pressing Problems and Their Solutions

Thollem McDonas recently wrote to me and requested that I write eleven pressing problems that we face today along with the solutions to those problems. He specified that both the problem and the answer be stated in one sentence, if possible.

Here are my responses to that request:

1) Problem: The world is getting smaller due to overpopulation and as a result more and many of our natural resources are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Solution: Increase birth control awareness; keep abortion safe and legal for women in all parts of the world.

2) Problem: George W Bush is president and fucking things up beyond belief.

Solution: Guillotine him and his entire cabinet on the White House lawn as soon as possible.

3) Problem: Americans suffer from an enormous deficit of intellectual curiosity.

Solution: Make education irresistible.

4) Problem: Funding for the arts is almost non-existent.

Solution: Document, prove and present the phenomena that art saves lives and distribute the information widely.

5)  Problem: Fast food is killing us in numerous ways (economically, nutritionally, agriculturally, etc.).

Solution: Refuse fast food under any circumstance and encourage others to refuse it. Start a national campaign to set fire to fast food restaurants in your neighborhood. Read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

6)  Problem: California is 47th in the nation for academic achievement, the Oakland Unified School District has declared bankruptcy and teachers are about to strike.

Solution: Tutor a child. Give books to children whenever you can invent an excuse to do so. Ask Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger why he’s willing to fund after-school programs while he is gutting school budgets.

7) Problem: Our dependence on fossil fuel creates war, ecological hazards, and enslaves us to a government that abuses its power in order to have more of it.

Solution: Take public transportation, ride a bike, walk, imagine that you’ve lost your car keys for a one week once a month.

8) Problem: We are building prisons faster than we are building schools.

Solution: Legalize drugs; demand better schools in our low-income neighborhoods; demand jobs not bombs from every local, state and national politician who might consider you a constituent.

9) Problem: Americans are racist, homophobic, obnoxious, ignorant, bitter, overly competitive, and bigoted.

Solution: Love your neighbors.

10) Problem: You cannot change the world.

Solution: Change your self.

11) Problem: Thinking and writing are not the answer.

Solution: Do something.

Phillip Greenlief

Oakland, California

INTERVIEW with Phillip Greenlief from Cadence Magazine

Author: James Bennington
Description: INTERVIEW with Phillip Greenlief from Cadence Magazine

Name: Phillip Greenlief
Birthdate: 2/14/59
Place of Birth: Los Angeles, California
Instrument: soprano, alto & tenor saxophones, Bb clarinet
Current Residence: Oakland, CA

JB: How did you become interested in music?

PG: My grandfather gave me a record player when I was about 4 years old. My first records were the Beatles’ hit single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (Eroica). I was completely fascinated with anything that came out of the speakers of that little record player. There was one recording I had of someone narrating one of the Babar the Elephant stories with orchestral accompaniment. When Babar’s wife Celeste was kidnapped, the music was really chaotic and intense and I was amazed by how stirring of an emotional experience it brought on. From that day onward I’ve been completely fascinated with sounds and the way that they affect us.

JB: When did you start playing and what drew you to your instrument(s)?

PG: My first instrument was a guitar, which I got from my parents for Christmas when I was 8 or 9 years old. I didn’t get any lessons, but I had a Mel Bay guitar book, which had chords and little melodies. Since I couldn’t read music yet, I just learned a lot of chords and tried from time to time to play along with my records (at that time it would have been Rolling Stones, Donovan, The Seeds, and some Motown stuff).

A few years later my elementary school posted auditions for the junior orchestra and since my dad was a trumpet player when he was younger, he suggested I try the trumpet. That is when I began to read music and learn about some basic things. I was really into Jimi Hendrix at the time (1968) and I was super frustrated because I couldn’t get my trumpet to sound like Are You Experienced?

When I got to junior high school, I got really turned off by the orchestra and I ditched the trumpet and bought an electric bass with some money I made from my paper route. I played in a few garage bands and picked up the guitar again in high school. It wasn’t until just after my senior year that I heard a recording by Wayne Shorter and I fell in love with the saxophone. I’ve been with it ever since (1977).

JB: What brought you to jazz/ improvisational music?

PG: I had a job in high school delivering medicine for this pharmacy. Every day I was hitting the LA freeways and listening to the radio. I tuned into the usual rock stations, but I began to get really bored with what was on the radio. So I started to listen to the jazz station, because folks were improvising on it and I was starting to improvise. So I really dug into jazz and started buying records and trying to learn some stuff. My first live jazz concert was hearing Kenny Burrell at the old Howard Rumsey’s by the Sea concerts. I think I was a senior in high school at that point, and I was pretty hooked by then.

During my first year at college, I found a copy of Marion Brown’s “Duets” – with Leo Smith and Elliot Schwartz. This was the first album of completely improvised music that I had ever heard, and I was really drawn to it. Fortunately, I had two great teachers in those days that exposed me to a lot of things: graphic scores, improvised music, electronic music, prepared piano, soloing in the jazz tradition over changes, ethnomusicology, etc. One of those teachers was Jerry Moore – who is the father of Michael Moore (ICP, Cluzone Trio, etc.) and Gregg Moore. He was also my first saxophone teacher and although he didn’t tell me a lot about how to play the instrument, he gave me a lot of different kind of pieces to work on – everything from simple melodies to etudes and atonal pieces. Later, when I was at USC, I studied saxophone technique with Douglass Masek, who really helped me strengthen my sound and technical facility.

JB: What were your musical interests, activities and significant experiences in the early stages of your career?

PG: After living in Humboldt County I found that I was coming down to the SF Bay Area a lot to hear the great musicians of the day. So I moved to San Francisco in 1979 and started playing with anyone that had any interest in the areas of improvised music, jazz or rock-related music. I discovered the ROVA saxophone quartet at that time and many other great groups that came through town. I went to jam sessions, and in those days there was one somewhere just about every night of the week, so I got a lot of exposure to mature players like Mark Little, John Handy, Mark Izu, Eddie Henderson and Eddie Moore, and was playing tunes with them. I was happy to find so many people here in the bay area with an open mind for different kinds of music, and I was exposed to lots of different performances. You could hear Indian Classical music one night, The Art Ensemble of Chicago on another, see a premiere of Messiaen on another night and catch Dexter Gordon on the weekend – not to mention the whole explosion of the Punk and New Wave bands that were coming through town. It was a very active time and I was stimulated by just about everything. Even in the punk clubs there was a huge crossover element – you could hear Sun Ra or James Blood Ulmer at the same venue where you might hear the Butthole Surfers and the Dead Kennedys.

In those early days I had a part-time job in the morning for about 3-4 hours and then I would go home, eat lunch, maybe take a quick nap, and then hit the streets, where I would play/practice for about 6 hours until it was dinnertime. After playing on the street for 6 or 7 hours I usually had enough money to get a meal and catch some live music. If I didn’t make enough money, I would go to Golden Gate Park and practice out there until it got to be too cold or too foggy, which isn’t good for your horn. I lived in a small apartment in those days and couldn’t practice at night because of the neighbors. But all throughout the 1980’s I was trying to get in about 6 or 7 hours of practice a day…that was really important to my development.

JB: Then to now, what do you think has changed?

PG: On a personal level, I went back to school in the late 1980’s and really tightened things up with regard to my technique and knowledge of music theory, history, orchestration, performance, etc. That was a big leap. I came out of that experience with a lot more confidence and a clearer sense of what I was trying to achieve in my music as far as conception. My playing was stronger all around – and that always helps. I was back to spending 7 hours a day practicing. I was also gigging a lot in LA in those days – I had a steady gig on Thursdays with my trio with guitarist Ken Rosser and a variety of bassists that would have included Roberto Miranda, Jesse Yusef Murphy, Dave Carpenter or Jeff Hobbs. On Fridays and Saturdays and also quite often on Sunday nights I had a gig with Tom Osuna’s quartet – so I was working 4 nights a week for about 3 or 4 years.

JB: What about on a bigger picture…how has the scene changed? How have the changes affected you…

PG: The big difference between “then and now” in the Bay Area scene could be explained in a few ways. For one, we don’t have the diversity and sheer bulk of great music coming through town. Because there are fewer places to play, there may be more musicians hunting for gigs and less venues to satisfy those needs.

This has been addressed by quite a few of us who just started to take things into their own hands. We started to find places that would rent a space for a night, or in some cases, like at 21 Grand in Oakland, there are opportunities to book gigs nearly every night of the week without asking for a rental charge – the venue takes a percentage of the door to pay the rent, and they also have an accordion shop in their space and they function as a gallery as well – so there are a few ways they can generate income.

The advent of this kind of space allows musicians to bypass a booking agent or someone that works at a club booking “acts”. We all know that this amounts to a variety of games regarding playing favorites and who seems to bring in the most people that can drink the most alcohol. This doesn’t respect any kind of artistic intent or display of talent, rather how good is any given band at marketing themselves. I think we have had to figure that out – and the internet and other options have made it easier to book gigs and get the word out – but sometimes artists use that service (emailings, websites, etc.) and forget that there are some newspapers and publications that are willing to support the music. In contrast, many publications in the SF Bay Area have been bought by larger publishing corporations, and the rules on who gets ink has changed. Many papers like the East Bay Express, The SF Weekly and others have articulated guidelines that state if you are not paying for an ad in their publication, you can’t get a preview article. That wasn’t the case before the year 2000, but the explosion/implosion wreaked quite a lot of havoc in that regard.

JB: Tell me about the business side of your career, and do you have any idea of how it could be changed or improved?

PG: It’s usually a matter of economics. If the people that run performance spaces and clubs had more money coming in, they could advertise. That’s fairly simple. And because they can’t, they remain underground. It’s capitalism’s way of establishing a certain kind of censorship.

I tried to get things going by starting my own record label (Evander Music), which I did back in 1994. That has helped me quite a bit in some ways. The benefits over time have been more reviews, more airplay and in general, more exposure. In addition to the label, I have been presenting concerts by folks on the label and other musicians from out of town that are coming through and want to hook up a gig. More and more people have called upon me to help them do that, and I’ve tried as hard as I can to not turn anyone away. That has resulted in playing with more folks from out of town (NY, Chicago, LA & other spots on the west coast, Europe, Japan, etc.). That has been nice – it always stretches you to work with new people, whether their aesthetics are in concert with yours or not, and it usually stretches you in a good way.

JB: What have been your greatest experiences as a musician?

PG: It’s hard to talk about any one experience, but meeting and playing with Joelle Leandre, and more than anything being the recipient of her generous friendship, has been amazing. I’ve learned a lot from playing with her, and even more from just hanging out and going to concerts and having meals together. When you’re hanging with someone that folks like John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi have written for, there’s a lot to learn from that shared experience. In particular, her relationship with Scelsi and all that she learned from him, has fed my ongoing search for expanding the sound of the saxophone. In addition, I have been deeply thankful for my musical relationships with Jon Raskin, Leo Smith, Frank Gratkowski, Roberto Miranda, Ken Filiano, Trevor Dunn, Scott Amendola, Nels Cline, GE Stinson, Vinny Golia, and of course my band-mates in the Lost Trio (Tom Hassett & Dan Seamans), who I have been playing with for 12 years now. These folks have all been quite generous with their time and music and I have learned a lot while working with them.

My investigation into electronic music and having a chance to work with some really great electronic musicians has also been valuable in the evolution of my sound. I began this process several years ago, and it completely changed my approach to playing and to sound production. Instead of thinking about notes, I have tried to focus on frequencies.

It was also amazing to go to Russia and live there for a summer. I met some amazing musicians the first day I was there – and that was one experience where I was performing a lot, reading a lot, practicing a lot, and just digging the scene in Saint Petersburg! I’ve only had a few experiences in my life where my only work was to play my horn and make music. If it wasn’t so cold there in the winter, I have often thought of settling there on a permanent basis.

JB: What about your most difficult experiences?

PG: Well, it isn’t really worth whining about the hard times, and you usually learn a lot from difficulties. I suppose in general, just working with folks that don’t listen and don’t see improvised music as the art of composing in real time. It seems there are still quite a few musicians out there that think improvised music is just play whatever you want whenever you want, without regard to form or shape or dynamics or any of the rich subtleties that music can offer. There have also been some very difficult solo tours, where you are responsible for booking everything and making all the related arrangements, traveling for long lengths of time on your own, and all the pressure to throw down musically every night is totally on you. I remember having this dream while on a solo tour once where I was stuck out in the middle of an endless desert with nothing in sight – the whole solo experience can be like that sometimes. At the same time, as hard as those experiences have been, they have made me grow in ways that would not have happened otherwise. It’s really helpful if you can get past the fear and anxiety that comes with those kinds of situations and just settle into the music and take care of business.

JB: Do you travel? If so, why do you do it, how does it change the music?

JB: I love to travel and have enjoyed as long as I can remember. I think it is especially important for musicians to travel and play their music in cities all over the world – anywhere you can land. You seem to get more attention when you go out of town (you are something unique and not the same old band that plays the same old places on the same old days.). I have had good fortune to get quite a lot of press and radio play while on tour and you sell more records when you go out on the road. In addition, there is the benefit of playing with people that you never would have met had you not left your home town. Also, it’s so great to go to a distant country, where you don’t know anyone, and just start playing with someone you’ve never met – no matter where it happens – it could be on the street, in someone’s apartment, or on stage at a festival. This happens a lot on the road, if you’re open to it, and you learn that we are all much more alike than we are different. I think if more people would do this, we would have less cultural schisms that create the kind of frictions that create a whole legion of atrocities. We need to discover more ways to play with each other.

JB: How do you feel your music is presented and received in general?

PG: As far as presentation is concerned, I’m more interested in performing in smaller venues where I can play acoustically and not have to deal with sound systems. You can find the rare sound engineer that really knows what they are doing, but this isn’t the norm, and it steals from the musician the opportunity to play the room, which is one of the joys of making music.

As far as received is concerned, well – it just depends on where you land and when you land. There will always be the occasional bad gig, where you felt lousy (physically) because you haven’t had enough sleep, haven’t had a meal all day, or you’re wasted from sitting on a plane, train, bus, or in a car. And still people come up and say how great the show was (and you can’t get over how bad it was!). On the other hand, I try to walk away with something positive from every gig – no matter how small or insignificant. I think audiences have been good to me over the past few years. I have had total strangers come up to me quite a lot over the past few years and say really satisfying things about my work – the most satisfying comments are not about, “wow, you were good”, but more in line with really understanding what it is you’re trying to give or do with your music.

JB: Would you change anything?

PG: I’m happy with the life I’ve lived and I’m happy with the music I’ve made. Sure there are a few things here and there that you want to just erase from your mind all together, but what good would that do? We tend to benefit the most from what people view as mistakes or problems – that’s the stuff that forces you to change your patterns of behavior or hopefully, your ways of seeing or listening. Too much praise or too much apathy from an audience just leaves you empty. At least that’s how seems to me.

JB: What are your current musical activities and what would you like to see in your future?

PG: I have a lot going on these days and don’t have a real deep desire to take on more stuff just to be busier. I have about 6 or 7 recordings I would like to see released in the next year. I am playing in duo and trio with some really great musicians, and my solo performance activity continues to force me to grow.

As far as the future goes, I really don’t have an agenda. There are composition projects I want to realize and a few groups I would like to be playing with on a more regular basis. Apart from that, I’m happy with the way my life and music is rolling. I have been switching it up with several groups for many years now, and when you play in different ensembles it forces you to express your musical ideas in different ways. You see if your ideas can stretch – and if they can’t, then you develop new ways of solving the new musical problems. If you don’t, you stay locked in a rather tight circle of possibilities. By staying with the music year after year – decade after decade – you find there is time to address a lot of musical problems, and hopefully you discover that there are more possibilities than restrictions.