Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright: play Saul’s Deli in Berkeley on Saturday, May 24. Photo: Michael Zelner
Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright: play Saul’s Deli in Berkeley on Saturday, May 24. Photo: Michael Zelner

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote 44 Duos for Two Violins as a series of exercises for young musicians, but for Oakland reed experts Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright interpreting the brief pieces is anything but child’s play. They’ve been investigating 44 Duos for more than two decades, and revisit the works Saturday at Saul’s Deli on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, in the program Reimagining Bartók and the Folk Tradition.

Playing Bb clarinets, they’re faithful to his score, but improvise in and out of the pieces.

“They’re pretty short, so we connect several pieces to create suites, which is pretty easy because the pieces are also wildly contrasting,” Greenlief says. “It’s such an interesting mix of work. They are clearly based on folk music, stuff he transcribed when he was doing all that ethnomusicological research. I don’t really know the folk sources, but from what I can tell 44 Duos pretty much represents the original material.”

Greenlief and Wright have performed 44 Duos several times in the East Bay, most recently at Studio Grand, the promising new Oakland art and performance space near the Grand Lake Theater. They first presented Reimagining Bartók at Saul’s two years ago. Familiar to Saul’s owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt as a regular customer and a musician, Greenlief had an open invitation to bring in a band. The deli has presented klezmer on Monday nights for several years, along with the Ghost Note Ensemble on second and fourth Sundays, and live piano Tuesday through Thursday 6-8 p.m.

“They told me a while back when they were starting to present music to tell them if I had anything going that would fit in,” Greenlief says. “The Barkok pieces have an Eastern European flavor similar to klezmer. It seemed like a good fit, and a lot of people came out. I’m not a prima donna like Keith Jarrett. I don’t need absolute silence, and folk music is great in a place like that.”

Greenlief’s name has appeared frequently in Berkeleyside, which is a testament to his regular presence in Berkeley venues and his dogged creativity. With so many good musicians around I make a point of casting a wide net when it comes to coverage, but some players are just too darn interesting to stay away from for long. Equally expressive on tenor and soprano saxophones, Greenlief tends to fly under the radar—you won’t catch him at SFJAZZ or Yoshi’s these days—but he’s been a creative force on the Bay Area scene for several decades as a player, composer, bandleader, educator and curator of various concert series (most recently at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space on University Avenue, where he’ll be playing with Orchestra Nostalgico on June 22).

The resurrection of Henry Grimes

Henry Grimes. Photo: Hollis King
Henry Grimes: plays Berkeley on May 31. Photo: Hollis King

Greenlief is responsible for a particularly intriguing performance as part of a benefit for the Homeless Action Center at the Berkeley Arts space on May 31. An improvised music marathon that runs from noon to 11 p.m., the event features a Technicolor cross-section of the Bay Area’s left field scene. Toward the end of the evening, scheduled for 10 p.m. but given the nature of the event that’s a rough estimate, Greenlief is playing a duo set with legendary bassist Henry Grimes, who’s still a protean force at 78.

What’s remarkable about Grimes isn’t his longevity though. It’s his career resurrection. A Juilliard trained master who established himself on the New York City scene in the late 1950s, he played and recorded with giants such as Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins. When Charles Mingus wanted to add a second bass to his ensemble, he hired Grimes. But as jazz took an expressionist turn in the early 1960s, Grimes was often the player anchoring and propelling the wild flights. He was at the center of the free jazz action, contributing to recordings by pianist Cecil Taylor, trumpeter Don Cherry, and saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler. And then he was gone.

Looking to get away from the cold around 1968 he headed to the West Coast, landing in Los Angeles and essentially disappearing from sight.

Grimes dropped off the scene so completely that most of his colleagues assumed he had died. When a jazz-loving social worker tracked him down in Los Angeles in 2003, he hadn’t played or even owned a bass for more than three decades. “I took up writing poetry, and I was working day gigs,” Grimes said in a recent phone conversation from his apartment in New York City. “I just switched over writing poetry. I feel poetry and music are related. One can lead to the inspiration of the other.”

The news of Grimes’ reemergence sparked a wave of attention, and within months he was performing again in New York. Over the past decade he’s performed around the world and recorded prolifically. While adding the violin to his string arsenal he’s reunited with old comrades and forged relationships with dozens of musicians who grew up listening to classic albums he participated on, like Greenlief. But he’s been a scarce presence in Northern California. Grimes makes his highest profile Bay Area appearance yet on June 1 at an SFJAZZ Center with the Marc Ribot Trio, the concluding gig in a four-night run by the guitarist.

Ribot released an acclaimed album with Grimes in 2005 devoted to the music of Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity (Pi Recordings), and the ensemble reunited (minus trumpeter Roy Campbell) last year for a run documented on the recent Pi release Live at the Village Vanguard. Greenlief had gotten to know Grimes by lending him the bass of beloved and sorely missed Matthew Sperry (who was killed in 2003 by a pickup truck while riding his bike in North Oakland) when he was in town for several dates. Most memorable for Greenlief was Grimes’ duo performance at CNMAT with avant garde patriarch and Mills College professor Roscoe Mitchell (Greenlief and Grimes will be performing together for the first time at Berkeley Arts).

“That was one of the most amazing concerts I’ve seen, in terms of exploring instruments’ possibilities,” Greenlief says. “He’s on so many of my favorite recordings, like the Sonny Rollins album with Coleman Hawkins. He’s been in so many interesting situations. I’m excited to play with him.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....