I knew Vancouver guitarist and oud-player Gordon Grdina from his debut album "Think Like The Waves", with nobody less than Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Quite a feat for a young musician, and one that illustrates the trust these jazz greats have for his skills and potential. And although the album got some favorable reviews, it was still very rooted in bop. Next to his jazz albums, he also created more Arabic music with Sangha, genre-fusing music with Box Cutter, and now he explores the possibilities of a string quartet, with Jesse Zubot on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Peggy Lee on cello, with of course Grdina playing guitar and oud, moving the music away from jazz and into modern classical music and avant-garde, with strong influences from Arabic and Persian music. The combination is not bad at all, it adds the right level of drama and sadness, well balanced with the more cerebral explorations of new sounds and sound combinations. The most beautiful piece is the long title song, the album's pièce-de-résistance, on which the oud's warm plaintive phrasings is supported by the hypnotic and melancholy strings. Despite the typical sound of the line-up, for some ears the breadth of the musical journey this quartet takes may still be too far-reaching, ranging from the ancient traditions of the middle-east to the very abstract, at times dissonant modern music, but Grdina manages to use that scope to his advantage, laying bare an austere yet emotionally expressive aesthetic that unites the various genres on this album. A strong achievement and a nice listening experience.
The Gordon Grdina Trio - If Accidents Will (Plunge, 2009) ***
The Gordon Grdina Trio is a different story. Accompanied by Tommy Babin on bass and Kenton Loewen on drums, the guitarist demonstrates the wealth of idioms he masters, but a little too much. True, each piece of the album is well-played and has musical merits of its own, but it is very difficult to find the commonalities between a 12-minute long oud improvisation - beautiful though it may be - with the harsh, raw and burning modern electric guitar trio tunes with which the album opens. And then we get the compulsory slow blues, and yes we like the blues, but what is it doing here? And then you also get treated to a more melodic post-bop piece to end the album. All nice, but no coherence. The trio can play, no doubt about it. But mixing it all up is confusing to this listener. The album starts full of promise, but then you get the impression that inspiration got lost, and that the band fell back on the more beaten track. The good news however is that with every release, Grdina seems to come closer to creating his own voice. And that's good progress.