Author: Derk Richardson
Description: Goldie Award article on 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)