Tuesday, July 28, 2020

CD Review: Gordon Grdina Septet - Resist / Gordon Grdina's Nomad Trio - Nomad

It's time to look back at some music that's been here a few months that I've been meaning to write about but hadn't had the focus or time (or both) to put words down about them. Like a few other people that have been covered on this blog recently, Gordon Grdina has been on a creative roll for a while. No sooner did he release Cooper's Park (Songlines) with his quartet last year than his Nomad Trio (with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black [more below]) came out in January. He already started making waves a few years ago with his unique approach to the guitar and his use of the oud in an experimental jazz setting. I first heard him on the 2017 album Inroads and have been meaning to blog about him since then. Now it's time to catch up.

Gordon Grdina Septet
(Irabagast) Bandcamp link: tinyurl.com/y4prs6h5 (NOTE: this is the link to the High Def version of the album. There's also a regular def version on his Bandcamp page.)

Grdina didn't plan to create an extended piece that would encapsulate the turmoil of the last three or four months (Resist was released April 10). The Vancouver native was actually responding to the political rhetoric and just-below-the-surface racism that has been brewing in this country and around the world when he composed the 23-minute title track. It just so happens that the composition rather effectively transposes the turmoil of this year into music. Dark and ominous as it can be, it still maintains a rugged beauty. In other words, it doesn't simply leave us off at the pit of despair, even though a resolution isn't provided either. 

"Resist' puts Grdina's trio (bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen) together with the East Van Strings quartet and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. The additions to the ensemble leave the strongest impression. In fact, Grdina doesn't make a proper entrance until six minutes into the piece. The strings often sound staccato or rigid in places but that gets balanced by Irabagon's long lines that blow over them. As the music rises up in the final minutes, Irabagon, on tenor, delivers a passionate solo in which his technique almost sounds like a recording being played backwards. In between, Grdina breaks the mood with an unaccompanied oud solo. Often times, string quartets in modern jazz exploit dissonant scraping and whining to evoke drama. Not so here. The entire septet creates a rich sound that could be a soundtrack were it not such a realistic portrait of 2020. 

In some ways that opus is hard act to follow, but after a soothing oud interlude ("Seeds"), "Varsona" finds the group moving away from New Music closer to free jazz, with Irabagon's gruff tenor leading the way. The most impressive moment comes when the saxophonist's line magically (or so it feels) cues in Grdina and the strings who create a raucous pile-up of sounds, eventually climaxing in a taut guitar/saxophone line. 

Irabagon's pinched-reed sopranino squawks in "Resist the Middle" are a bit of a distraction during the blend of free heaviness and haunting minor strings. Luckily they don't last too long amidst the skronk. "Ever Onward" closes the album with a contemplative oud strumming blending with the strings. Hope might not be the answer provided by this music, but it sure offers resolve to continue working towards change.

Gordon Grdina's Nomad Trio
(Skirl) gordongrdina.bandcamp.com/album/nomad

Released in January Nomad finds Grdina back in more of his experimental jazz mode, working closely with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black. Occasionally the music recalls Tim Berne's extensive lines that seem to flow freely, suddenly locking in on a structure that all three players seemed to sense long before a listener would notice.

Among the highlights, the title track is especially fascinating for the way that Mitchell doubles Grdina's guitar line with his left hand while the pianist's right hand plays a counterpoint that sounds light years away, rhythmically, from his other half. Again the final track, "Lady Choral," reintroduces the oud which succeeds a ruminative solo by Mitchell, which Grdina follows on lyrically. By waiting to use that instrument until the final track, it makes the oud sound less like an exotic instrument in a jazz context and more like one that can easily adapt to the vocabulary of free improvisation without losing its identity. Black, who avoids his trademark splatter approach to the kit for most of this set, steps away from the group until the very end of "Lady Choral," when it all comes together.

Much of this album sounds spontaneous, but Grdina wrote the music for the album with Mitchell and Black in mind, having desired to undertake a project like this for a few years.

While getting the Bandcamp urls together for this review, I noticed that Grdina has yet another new release too: the solo guitar/oud album Prior Street. Don't fight the feeling.

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