Catching up with Gordon Grdina…again ~ The Free Jazz Collective

Written by on May 23, 2020

By Nick Ostrum

Oudist and guitarist Gordon Grdina spanned the new year with three releases
that caught my ear. So, here is a second compendium of Grdina’s recent work
to complement


from September 2018. Apparently, it is about time. (Editor’s note: Eyal will be catching up again, tomorrow!)

Matthew Shipp, Mark Helias, and Gordon Grdina – Skin and Bones
(Not Two, 2019) *****

I am sorry I missed this last year, because this would have hovered around
the top of my year end list.

Skin and Bones
is the first of two piano trios, consisting of the incomparable Matthew
Shipp on keys and Mark Helias on bass. The title comes from a concert
series dedicated to experimental music that has brought a slew of
contemporary free jazz (and related music) luminairies to Canadan’s
Okanagan. In 2018, trio consisting of Shipp, Helias, and British Columbia
native Gordon Grdina were among them.

Inspired by their clear rapport, the trio decided to cut a studio album of
completely improvised material, judging by the titles, apparently inspired
by boxing. But, starting with the first track, it is clear they are doing
much more than providing the soundtrack to some bout of fisticuffs. It
begins with a starkly romantic run by Grdina that quickly gets swept up in
a gust of piano and pizzicato bass. Over the course of the first track,
“Bob and Weave,” the musicians seem to oscillate more with the vagaries of
the weather than bob and weave with the determined pugnacity of a boxer.
Indeed, there seems more surrender to melody and course, and some sort of
naturalism, in this piece that may be absent the controlled and aggressive

And, it seems, the rest of the album follows with a series of boxing-themed
titles that, if the listener were to embrace the music’s naturalism,
relaxed flow, and titular double entendres (“Stick and Move,” “Feather
Weight” [rather than featherweight]). Indeed, it is not until the stormy
“The Onslaught” over 40 minutes into the album that I hear any real
aggression. Tension and virtuosic rapidity, of course, pop in and out of
previous tracks. Most, however, are slower, more contemplative and, even,
listless (“Solitary Figure”), and lyrical. That is not to say that these
traits are entirely absent from boxing; the most obvious example is
Muhammed Ali’s marriage of verbal and physical poetry, and his vernal
analogy of the boxer, the butterfly, and the bee. And, sure, we can trace
this back through Hellenistic ideals of naturalistic male beauty and
performance. I am cannot say the trio intended such a reading, but this
album seems to draw similar connections between the humanly brutal and the
deceptively whimsical natural realms. And beyond this album contains 72
minutes of absolutely engaging and absolutely stunning improv. Then again,
from these three musicians, would one expect anything less?

Gordon Grdina Quartet – Cooper’s Park (Songlines, 2019) ***1/2

This quartet seems to be working its way into one of Grdina’s more stable
working groups. Coming off their 2017 release Inroads, Cooper’s Park is a solid collection of five, primarily mainstream
jazz pieces. Although the musicianship is impeccable and them music
periodically breaks into stilted melodies and abstract group
improvisations, this album shines less than the other two reviewed here.
Drummer Satoshi Takieshi lays swinging grooves over which Oscar Noriega
navigates his reeds and through which Ross Lossing weaves his keys (piano,
Rhodes, and clavinet). For his part, Grdina gives a solid performance and
shows that he can rein in his more exploratory impulses. Because of the
music’s creative conventionality (neologism or nonsense?) and its gentle
dynamism (especially the in tracks like “Seeds” and the titular “Cooper’s
Park” the effort is much tighter than Grdina’s more freewheeling releases.
And, Cooper’s Park does venture beyond the contemporary funk-laced
jazz into prog rhythm and restrained free jazz discordance. At times, as in
the enchantingly delicate ten-minute introduction to “Wayward”, first
Grdina, then Lossing, followed by Noriega and Takieshi shine through an
understated economy rather than forceful superfluity of melody and
consonance. These excursions and extended blissful passages, however,
remain the exception and the result somewhat less compelling than some of
Grdina’s more out recordings.

Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio – Nomad (Skirl Records, 2020) ****½

is the newest of the bunch and the second piano trio. On this disc, Grdina
is complemented by Matt Mitchell (who, especially




, has been showing himself to be one of the premier pianists in the scene)
and Jim Black on drums.

Coming off listening to Skin and Bones, it is clear from the very
first notes of the opener “Wildlife” that Nomad is a different
beast. It has a more rhythmic, free rock vibe. It has more recognizable
melodic progressions and harmonies. Some of this may be attributable to the
fact that Grdina composed all tracks himself. That said, Nomad is
still open and heavily improvisational. Grdina may set the direction, but
Mitchell and Black help take us there. Take “Wildfire.” It begins with
discordance. Grdina meanders around his electric guitar; Mitchell plods
around a plucky series of chords and rhythms; Black fumbles around and
crashes magnificently. It is difficult to hear what is composed apart from
maybe the mood of the starting point, the basic trajectory of the piece,
and a coda at the end. Then again, the piece is unified. Despite a lot of
freedom to wander, the track moves to a singular effect. Most other tracks,
including the eponymous “Nomad,” are of a similar ilk, even as their
compositions come out more clearly in repeated melodies that lay the
groundwork for the improvisational meat that follows. This is fusion,
tending toward thick guitar lines and stilted, heavy melodicism, minus the
soaring (and showy) flourishes that the latter label evokes. It is not that
the band plays with Bauhaus/new objectivity instrumentality or shuns
displays of virtuosity; rather, when they do embellish, they do so with
purpose. The end-products are more meditations on converging styles or a
mood than the start-stop melodic jumbling that a lot of composed guitar
music of this type tends toward. The final cut, “Lady Choral,” is a
seductive, Iberian outlier, wherein Grdina, unplugs and turns to the oud
for an extended solo. The result is a sparser, but deeply emotive piece
that seems to reference classical Arabic music even more than the heavier
guitar music that drives the rest of the album. A moving and meditative
departure, and perfect conclusion to a compelling excursion to the fault
where hard(er) rock and free jazz merge (or deviate).

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