Since the release of his first album in 2006, Think Like the Waves
(Songlines), Gordon Grdina has sought a musical language that would allow him to incorporate his dual interests in the electric guitar and the oud. It is tempting to view this as an "East meets West" process, wherein Grdina's jazz and rock-infused guitar playing melds somehow with the Arabic influences that typically contextualize oud performance. But that is not entirely accurate, as Grdina's recordings are more likely to pull avidly from all sorts of directions, making the inspirational origins of his compositions almost beside the point. Chamberlike grace and precision will run up against raw punk energy, and deep strains of jazz and blues will be skewed by impressionistic abstraction. And, through it all, the music remains eminently listenable and engaging.
Grdina's latest quartet offering, Cooper's Park
, is a case in point. It features a group comprising pianist/keyboardist Russ Lossing
, alto sax/bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega
and drummer Satoshi Takeishi
, first assembled by Grdina for Inroads
(Songlines, 2017). The album's lengthy compositions allow Grdina to strike multiple emotional registers, and to draw on the substantial talents of his colleagues in making music that is rigorously composed yet also makes significant room for freedom and dialogue. It is an ideal representation of Grdina's expansive aesthetic.
The title track captures Grdina's modus operandi quite well. Over 18 minutes in length, it's a sprawling piece of music. A bright, assertive and complex head launches the track, with opportunities quickly emerging for mutual improvisation as the piece transitions into a more fluid, less structured space, where delicacy and carefully measured sentiments prevail, each musician presenting his thoughts with a whisper rather than a shout. Lossing and Grdina's gentle ruminations are accompanied by a restrained Takeishi, before the piece gradually finds another pulse and the music gains new momentum, with a crisply played solo from Grdina and a free-roaming, percussive dialogue between Takeishi and Lossing providing additional piquancy. But then a new segment takes things into overdrive, with Grdina's distorted fragments working alongside Lossing's gritty keyboard interjections, as the group ventures in a much funkier direction, Noriega's ecstatic wails and Takeishi's powerhouse fills generating unstoppable force.
The group's ability to move so seamlessly through Grdina's winding, mazelike compositions is noteworthy, a product of like-minded artistry and seasoning as a unit. The open feel of the four-way conversation that emerges on "Benbow" has a fragility that is quite compelling, but it eventually gives way to an emphatic groove initiated by a clever ostinato from Lossing. Even so, the transition doesn't seem forced; it fits Grdina's distinctive logic. "Seeds II"another long piece at over 17 minutesmakes its way through multiple modes, from an intimate dialogue between Noriega and Takeishi that is joined by Lossing and Grdina to tease out another fervid, propulsive groove (not to mention some terrifically bluesy licks from Grdina), before the piece breaks into another freer segment with a less defined space allowing for more spontaneous exchanges, only to once again segue into a fierce rhythmic torrent to close the piece. The fact that the group feels as centered and focused in the less structured moments as the more scripted ones is a testament to the players' mutuality and shared sense of purpose.
Grdina limits his oud playing to "Wayward," the last of the album's longer tracks, and it offers some of the most beautiful playing on the record. The first half of the piece possesses the restrained give-and-take that emerges during the most open segments of the other tracks, with compelling moments of lyricism from Grdina, while the second half has a much more idiomatic feel and a decidedly Middle-Eastern groove, but with Noriega's howling bass clarinet reminding us that this is music with some definite roots in avant-jazz.
Although Grdina's rock-based proclivities are hinted at throughout the album, the musicians wait until the closer, "Night Sweats," to fully turn things loose. And they do, with a vengeance, Lossing's fuzzed-out keyboards being as perfect in partnering Grdina's crunchy power chords as one could want, with Takeishi's relentless pummelings fuelling Noriega's furious cries. The piece's abrupt ending comes too sooneven on an album with well over an hour's worth of music. Grdina has a lot to say, and he's fortunate to have such a terrific band with which to say it.