Characteristically Edgy, Intense Oud and Guitar from Gordon Grdina
Vancouver-based guitarist/oudist Gordon Grdina has a deliciously edgy, smartly constructed, tuneful album, No Difference, out recently from Songlines. He’s joined by his longtime drummer Kenton Loewen along with Mark Helias on bass and Tony Malaby on tenor sax.
There are two duo pieces for oud and bass here, both recorded in concert at Shapeshifter Lab this past summer. The first, Hope in Being opens with an incisive, broodingly modal oud taqsim which coalesces into a remarkably catchy, swaying theme that Helias doubles with a similar stately precision and dynamic interaction with Grdina’s spirals and fades. The other, sardonically titled Fast Times, works a spare, spacious but slashing call-and-response, again with a Middle Eastern-flavored modal intensity.
The first of the guitar tracks, Limbo, is an enigmatic distantly ominous guitar/bass duo. Grdina builds to a Frisellian grey-sky theme, punching up the bass response and reverb for a rhythmic, exploratory solo over Helias’ judicious, dynamically rich climbs, eerily resonant chords and dancing motives, mingling with Grdina’s blurry, disquieted chordal ambience. The Throes makes a great segue as it brings up the levels, Grdina’s long, reverbtoned, misterioso intro building to a matter-of-fact swing with bolero and Romany allusions, Malaby’s nebulous alto at first a calming contrast to the biting, incisive drive of the guitar but then joining the melee.
Leisure Park, a trio piece, quickly expands on a snarling, emphatic descending progression. Grdina’s growling, sputtering guitar solo evokes Jim Hall spun through the prism of Marc Ribot, maybe; Helias picks up his bow and fires off one of his own in a similarly biting vein.
The guitar/bass duo Nayeli Joon, a sparkling but moody waltz dedicated to Grdina’s daughter, blends a British folk edge into Grdina’s carefully articulated, almost baroque arpeggiation, Helias taking full advantage of the chance to shift the song into the shadows and then back. Cluster sets a brooding, rather severe theme and improvisation for oud and bass over echoey, increasingly agitated deep-space washes of bowed guitar.
Fierce Point begins as the most free piece here, Loewen driving the morass upward, Grdina chopping furiously at his strings, Malaby and Helias blippy and surreal as Grdina wanders through this wilderness all alone, his creepy oud-flavored lines morphing into a wry early 70s-style metal-jazz vamp. The final number, Visceral Voices, shuffles genially with the most trad postbop flavor here, Grdina spicing it with the occasional menacing, reverberating, lingering riff against Malaby’s nonchalantly burred lines and Helias’ hard-hitting attack. Another triumph of intense, straightforward tunesmithing and agile, inspired interplay from one of this era’s most distinctive voices on the guitar.
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