On my radio show in 2006, I’d played tracks from That Overt Desire of Object,
an upcoming duo album by Phillip Greenlief and Joëlle Léandre. It was a good album, 11 tracks organized into “variations” for Léandre’s contrabass and Greenlief’s different horns — clarinet, alto sax, soprano sax, etc.
Greenlief, who I believe has been interviewed on my show more often than anybody else, had fronted us an early CD-R, already mastered. On the show, we discussed the imminent CD release. It was fun to have a bit of a scoop.
That was four-and-a-half years ago.
At the Angelica Sanchez concert in April, Greenlief told me the CD was only now being released. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the gap; I’d just assumed the release had happened as planned.
But it hadn’t, bitten by the usual difficulties of the DIY/avant-garde world. Big thumbs up, then, to the folks at Relative Pitch — a newly formed Bay Area label — for releasing this music to the big, bad world. (UPDATE: Relative Pitch is in the New York area, as noted below. Thanks, guys!)
In our 2006 interview, Greenlief mentioned that particularly in duo improvising, he prefers creating shorter pieces. He comes into each one with a strategy, a single idea he hopes to articulate in the space of a few minutes. Of course, that doesn’t preclude going with the flow if his partner finds a new direction to explore — or if they both shift plans at once, almost telepathically, which does sometimes happen.
The template, though, is one of crisp focus, rather than stringing phases together to form a musical novel. It pays off in some of the shortest tracks here. “2nd Variation for Clarinet and Contrabass” is a compact adventure, a flurry of speedy clarinet with classical tones, backed by some quick sawing on bass. The moment fades down quickly, making for a tart 90-second snack.
Often, Greenlief and Léandre try contrasting approaches with one horn, as on the two pieces for alto sax and contrabass. “1st Variation” starts with tight, twisting sax, descended from free jazz. “2nd Variation” is just as fast but has a different bounce. Léandre starts it with springy bowed notes, from which Greenlief builds a more abstract and more dynamically varied sax part. You might call it a more serious sound.
Among my favorite tracks is “2nd Variation for Soprano Sax and Contrabass,” which has the sax playing between-toned flutterings, like the patterns of speech, while the bass patiently strums the start of what could have been a roots/blues tune. The piece wanders forward, like a spoken monologue over a spare bass pulse in a smoky jazz bar.
“2nd Variation for Tenor Sax and Contrabass” actually starts with bold, dramatic bowed tones, but the sax arrives as a toneful, calming presence, speaking in pillowy short phrases. It’s a really nice combination.
The album ends with two solo tracks, both long, at 11 and 12 minutes. “1st Variation for Soprano Saxophone and Voice” features growls and wails sung by Greenlief into the saxophone, contrasted with fierce overblown growls produce by the saxophone itself. Its second half gives way to more conventional sax playing, extracting power tones and quick angles out of the soprano sax. (Kenny G, eat your heart out.)
Léandre responds with a bold voice-and-contrabass piece, starting with buzzy-toned bass sawing that gets into an athletic frenzy, lots of ferocious virtuosity. Much of the playing focuses on the sounds from the bow, riding one tone and/or a set of fast glissandos while the bowing hand works on the different sounds produced by varying angles and pressures. The “voice” part comes in late, starting with Léandre’s melodramatic breathing, then briefly opening into growly throat noises. You wouldn’t call the voice siren-like, but the bass part certainly is, especially the loud, assertive tones near the end. It’s bass with authority and attitude, which of course is a known strength of Léandre’s.