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 Eyal’s 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 space.
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
Nomad is the newest of the bunch and the second piano trio. On this disc, Grdina is complemented by Matt Mitchell (who, especially as of late , 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).
Nice set of reviews. I've been listening to and enjoying a lot of Gordon Grdina's output lately including each of those albums. My only gripe with your reviews is the classification of "Cooper's Park" as mainstream. Somehow I have a hard time imagining a mainstream jazz listener sitting through "Inroads" or Cooper's Park" with their mixture of chamber moments, rock-ish parts and free improvisations. But then again I'm not sure what we classify as mainstream anymore.
Gordon is a wonderful player..have enjoyed his work throughout the years. Thank you for posting.
Thanks for the posts!
Regarding the meaning of mainstream: you are right. It is a tough word to define especially when it comes to contemporary jazz. Really, compared to the other albums, this one just seemed to be pushing fewer boundaries, focusing instead on fine-tuning the balance between composed melodious sections and the more abstract improvisations. This sounded somewhat more composed (in both senses of the word, though keeping in mind there is a lot of free playing) in a way that might appeal to listeners accustomed to the more velvety side of post-bop.
I'm listening to Skin and Bones now. Have Shipp and Helias ever played together previously? It seems like the answer should be yes but nothing's coming to mind. Mark is such a melodic bass player who often gets unjustly overlooked when talking about top tier players. Anyway this is outstanding by Grdina and thanks for pointing out what he's been creating.
Skin & Bones had made my best of 2019 list. I sort of knew to pay attention when it came out because this trio had played a fabulous show in Seattle (at the Royal Room) in September of 2018.
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