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Playing both guitar and oud, Gordon Grdina finds a middle ground between composition and improvisation.
Gordon Grdina splits his sonic identity between two stringed instruments: the electric guitar he first picked up at age 9, and which carries powerful associations to rock, blues and jazz; and the oud, an 11-stringed, pear-shaped, fretless instrument he fell in love with a few years later, whose long history begins in Middle East and North Africa but which also carries a lesser-known jazz legacy. Grdina, now 45, has pursued parallel musical approaches: the improvisational possibilities contained within composed music, and the attainment of structure and form through open-ended, unscripted collaboration. His two recent albums — Boiling Point (Astral Spirits), the second release from his Nomad Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black; and Pathways (on his own indie label, Attaboygirl), his second project with pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Mark Helias — make use of both of his axes and express his dual conceptual inclinations.
Grdina composed six pieces for Boiling Point based on “a specific sound we had already achieved, and a sense of rhythmic texture,” he says of his trio with Mitchell and Black, which first worked together in 2017. This fresh body of music was intended as a framework for creativity but also as a straight-up challenge from Grdina to himself. “These guys can and do play anything, on the highest level, so I thought I’d write to that level and figure out how to stretch myself enough to play it.”
Technically, Grdina, whose first album as a leader, 2006’s Think Like Waves, featured bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, seems up to any musical context. On Boiling Point, he stretches mostly in terms of stylistic and emotional range, with impressive results. Grdina and his partners build to a loud and hard-edged fury on the title track. In contrast, much of “Shibuya” is built upon a drone-like repeated note from Grdina’s guitar, to which he plays low-end counterpoint and which drifts in and out of consonance and dissonance with Mitchell’s chords. “Cali-Lacs,” on which Grdina plays oud, suggests the Arabic folk he mines with another ensemble. The three pieces are similar in that they blend jazz’s collaborative spirit and gather momentum yet develop with the patient counterpoint of chamber music.
Pathways attains a similar breadth of style and mood. Yet Grdina’s approach with Shipp and Helias is different. There were no tunes to call, no written music in the studio. “I was after a feeling that the three of us have shared, more than anything else,” he says. He recalled a 2018 date with this trio, in Kelowna, a small town outside of Vancouver. “We were playing free but not without form, playing soft but also intense and rough, playing for the art of it, without thinking about a rule book or a spot we needed to get to. It felt wide open but also complete.” That feeling comes across on Pathways in a variety of ways. One track, “Palimpsest,” sounds spacious and searching, as if the three musicians are wandering together, looking for a tone, a phrase or a resolution. The very next track, “Deep Dive,” is more frenetic, with the three seemingly chasing one another around a musical idea.
Like so many other adventurous musicians, Grdina sought out Shipp for many reasons, including “his ability to tap into both delicate beauty and primal power,” Grdina says. Initially, Shipp was circumspect. “But then I heard him playing with Marc [Helias],” the pianist says. “I just felt the sincerity of someone who is not caught up in ideas of avant-garde or anything else, who just wants to push a musical language forward.” Grdina had played before with Helias, whose gifts for manipulating texture and time he admires. And he knew that Shipp and Helias were friends and neighbors in Manhattan’s East Village. The trio he formed brought these two musicians together in the studio for the first time. (They’ve since recorded a duo album, The New Syntax, for the Rogue Art label.) “I wasn’t sure if the trio would work,” Shipp says. “But on the very first gig, within 20 seconds, everything clicked, we found instant counterpoint. That’s rare.”
In some ways, it’s odd that Grdina has insinuated himself and his two instruments so well into the landscape of adventurous jazz and the lives of these mostly New York-based musicians. He was born and raised in Vancouver, a bustling seaport in British Columbia, and among Canada’s densest, most ethnically diverse cities. He still lives there. His mother started him on piano at 7, but when he fell for guitar-based rock and blues, she let him get an electric guitar. At 12, he was “walking around the suburbs with boots, a cowboy hat and a guitar, trying to be Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says.
He attended college, got a jazz performance degree and became entranced with that dean of jazz guitar, Jim Hall. One of his teachers told him, “You’re not going to be Jim Hall; you’re going to just be you.” Grdina first heard that as a door closing on his dreams. “But now I realize it was the key to them,” he says. At 13, another teacher gave him a recording by Indian slide guitar player Vishna Mohan Bhatt as an example of slide technique. But it was Simon Shaheen’s oud on the albumthat blew Grdina’s mind. “It was melodic and percussive at the same time,” he says, “and it had this deep, melancholic, woody tone.” He picked up the instrument and never looked back.
For many years, the oud was just an alternative to Grdina’s main instrument, guitar. But that changed a few years ago. “They’re both equal now,” he says. Around that same time, something else changed. “For a long time, when I played oud it felt a little like I was trying to be Arabic or something,” he admits. “But now I don’t feel that way. I feel released.” In the company of some of jazz’s most adventurous musicians, whether playing guitar or oud, interpreting compositions or freely improvising, he sounds that way. - Larry Blumenfeld
Photo by Genevieve Monro.