Author: James Bennington
Description: INTERVIEW with Phillip Greenlief from Cadence Magazine
Name: Phillip Greenlief
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 dot.com 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.