Few bands in jazz find musical pay dirt as consistently as Phillip Greenlief’s Lost Trio.
Launched about 17 years ago with bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett, the group brings the same gruff, unfussy eloquence to tunes by Hank Williams and Herbie Nichols, Billy Strayhorn and Nino Rota, Irving Berlin and Joni Mitchell, Beck and Bjork.
While focusing more on original material these days, Greenlief launched the stripped-down ensemble as a vehicle to investigate material outside the standard jazz repertoire, whether the source was Tin Pan Alley, Nashville, or Iceland. It’s a loose-limbed combo marked by an off-the-cuff poetic sensibility, full of earthy humor and soaring lyricism.
“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 convention of head, sax solo, bass solo, out. It seems like because of our repertoire we’ve somehow developed a sound that’s unique, if that’s possible in this music.”
Performing Friday night as part of the Berkeley Arts Festival, the Lost Trio celebrates the release of the group’s fifth album, “Mysterious Toboggan,” on Greenlief’s invaluable label Evander Music. A stellar cast of improvisers will be joining the trio throughout the evening, including Santa Cruz-raised, Brooklyn-based vocalist Sasha Dobson, Nice Guy Trio trumpeter Darren Johnston, Berkeley guitar explorer John Schott, invaluable reed expert Cory Wright, and electronics wizard Tim Perkis.
It’s an impressive array of talent, and only a small piece of Greenlief’s expansive musical universe. An avid cinephile who haunts the Pacific Film Archive, he leads Citta di Vitti, a trio that plays ravishing melodies he composed while watching the films of Michelangelo Antonioni sans sound. A dauntingly prolific composer and intrepid free improviser, he’s written concert-length programs for solo saxophone recitals, various large ensembles and dozens of instrumental settings in between. As his longest running band, the Lost Trio is where Greenlief always seems to find inspiration.
Also Recommended: As the only Bay Area ensemble specializing in the elegant 19th century Cuban style danzón, Orquesta la Moderna Tradición features a superlative cast of Latin music experts, including violinist, arranger and music director Tregar Otton, conguero Michael Spiro, flutist Jesus “Chus” Alonso, percussionist Sage Baggott, clarinetist Don Gardner and Cuban timbalero Carlos Caro. Saturday at Le Peña.
Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, the soul-drenched vocal ensemble steeped in the entire continuum of African-American music, plays a program of protest anthems and union songs from the 1940s through the 60s, accompanied by guitarist Camilo Landau and percussionist Jackeline Rago. Sunday at Freight & Salvage.