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Saxophonist Phillip Greenlief Takes His Freewheeling Improvisation Online

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Phillip Greenlief. (Chuck Koton)

There are precious few venues interested in presenting solo saxophone recitals, so Phillip Greenlief has made a habit of finding his own gigs. The footloose Oakland horn player has taken his tenor sax around the country, performing unaccompanied in theaters, clubs, plazas, meadows, deserts and canyons. Celebrating the release of his sixth solo saxophone album, Polyphonetic For Sun Ra, Ted Brinkley and David Boyce, he plays a rare Bay Area solo show Saturday, Feb. 13, livestreaming from the Center For New Music on a double bill with pianist Evelyn Davis, a versatile San Francisco improviser, keyboardist, vocalist and chamber musician.

An intrepid composer and player who’s profoundly shaped the Bay Area’s improvised music scene for more than three decades, Greenlief traces his interest in solo performance back to his formative years in the late 1970s studying music in Humboldt. An interview he read with Lester Bowie sparked an epiphany: the Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter asserted that all members of the pioneering Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians “should play solo concerts,” Greenlief recalled. “Okay, I should do that. I’d grab my horn and go into the redwoods. My solo thing has connected me with nature in a very deep way.”

He’s been thinking a lot about the demanding discipline in recent years, since he started teaching a 10-week course on solo free improvisation at the California Jazz Conservatory. (“That’s a challenge. How do you teach someone to be free? To free yourself?” he said). More than a creative outlet, solo performance has provided a focus for Greenlief’s annual tours around reservations, playing for fellow Native Americans. He plays some organized concerts, “but often I just find place to play,” Greenlief said. “There are a couple spots I’ve been getting to know, like a plaza in downtown Gallop, New Mexico. I start to play and after a while there’s a pretty big crowd of people.”

More information on Phillip Greenlief’s Feb. 13 livestream can be found here.

Correction: This story originally stated that Polyphonetic For Sun Ra, Ted Brinkley and David Boyce was Phillip Greenlief’s second album when it’s his sixth. 

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