If you have ever been to Russia, the music Phillip Greenlief conjures will help replicate your experiences. Not the packaged, “See the Hermitage on your left, Winter Palace on you right” kind of tour. But the dyslexic effects of being lost in the darkest cities where you cannot read a street sign to save your life kind of vacation. Greenlief’s stay in St Petersburg in the summer 1998 forms the skeleton of what he describes as psychedelic heavy metal chamber ensemble music. His sketchbook of Russian dreams inspired this two-guitar, two-wind instrument recording.
Greenlief, a Northern California music educator, recorded "collect my thoughts" with Scott Amendola for Nine Winds in 1995. He has since started his own label Evander Music to document new California artists and the many incarnations of his own playing, from the post-bop Trio Putanesca and The Lost Trio to more experimental works with Trevor Dunn and this disc. He is a fine bop tenor saxophonist with an ear for tradition, but a mind for experimentation.
The quartet assembled for Russion Notebooks is guitarists Nels Cline (Nels Cline Trio, Gregg Bendian's Interzone, Mike Watt) and G.E. Stinson (Shadowfax, Wayne Peet) plus reed master Vinny Golia and Greenlief. The notes I made while listening to the tracks reflect the disintegrating moods that materialized during my own visits to St. Petersburg. Greenlief’s score disorients the listener with guitar feedback and metal tastes. The mood is somber like the country. His use of off kilter sound on “Notebook Fragment For Svetlana Cherkina,” creates a sort of film noir sounding piece. While “Little Vacationing In Chechnaya” recreates the machine sounds of war, the guitarists tearing off chunks of buildings, while Golia and Greenlief fire rapidly across the streets. His piece “Wherewithal (for Shostokovich)” has the reeds repeating and biting, biting, biting notes. Golia and Greenlief play some scary free passages here.
But all is not evil in Ronald Reagan’s dreamt empire. The final track, “Last Night On The Neva” evokes the majesty of the once great nation. Greenlief takes a soulful tenor solo that would have made Pushkin cry. As this strange journey ends and we emerge from Russia, the listener may not be sure he/she has been or what the Russian experiment that took up most of the last century has done to its people.