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.”