Where is Pete Frame when you need him? Granted, even the famously obsessive chronicler of musical family trees might be stumped by Gordon Grdina’s multifarious activities: the local guitarist and oud player has so many bands, duos, recording sessions, and sideman gigs on the go that we’re not even going to try to list them here. Construct a flow chart of his musical activities, and you’d establish two-degrees-of-separation connections between everyone from Miles Davis (through Grdina’s mentor and frequent playing partner Gary Peacock) to Dan Mangan (Grdina was a member of Blacksmith, the improv-friendly band that used to back the singer-songwriter) to, well, me. (We both, at different times, played with the late art-rock visionary Elizabeth Fischer.)
Today, though, Grdina’s mind is on MGB, his new collaborative venture with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black. He’s just come back from rehearsing with his musical partners in New York City, and although he’s fatigued from an arduous and much-delayed cross-country flight, he’s unfailingly enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by this unusual, bassless trio.
“It’s been like an invitation to write whatever the hell I want to write, and to push myself,” he reports, reached by phone at his East Vancouver home. “I’m really excited and inspired right now, because I feel like I’m getting into a bunch of things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.…So, in this case, I just let my imagination go when I was writing, and then I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll see if I can play it.’ I basically spent the last three months just trying to figure out how to play the stuff I wrote. For me, it was very difficult. And for them… Well, it’s not easy, but I know that if we just get together for a few gigs, these guys will nail this stuff. And then I’m kind of writing for what they have and, like, how they play.
“The beautiful thing about both these guys is that they can read anything and instantly make music out of it,” Grdina adds of his latest bandmates. “They’re both able to bridge improv and written material on the fly, very succinctly—and they’ve got huge personalities, which is something I’m always drawn to.”
In an earlier conversation about Mitchell, who’s recently established his own local fan base through a string of rapturously received concerts, Grdina described the pianist as “an incredibly inspiring individual”. “He manages to make things you thought were impossible effortless,” the guitarist continued. “I’ve learned a great deal listening to him play and working with him, [and] he brings an extremely high level of intensity, energy, and dedication to anything he does.”
Moving on to Black, Grdina cites the percussionist’s sensitivity to texture as an important part of MGB’s makeup—along with his willingness to “hit harder” than the typical jazz drummer. But what might matter most, as with any band, is that the musicians won’t drive each other crazy while travelling from show to show.
“We all kind of get along pretty well,” Grdina says. “When we meet, it’s like jokes and good times, which is always better. It really helps, being able to dig each other.”
And that returns us to the social nature of the improv world, in which personal relationships are as important as the written music—which, in some extreme cases, might not even exist. In order to build complex long-form structures with deep emotional content from relatively simple instructions, the players have to be emotionally available to each other, with well-developed listening and communication skills. Or that’s the ideal, anyway.
“There’s also a thing where you can have listening skills and all that and then you can also be a dick,” Grdina says, laughing. But he quickly turns serious: “Those people are the anomaly, though, I think. And that’s the thing. Music is how we learn. That’s how we grow, I think, and how we learn about everything. Like, my basic spiritual teachers have been my music teachers. Even when I was younger, they were the ones that I looked up to, trying to understand the world through their eyes. And then listening to the music, learning about it, and trying to be humble in order to get better is what teaches you the skills you need in the world to be a good human.”
The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society presents MGB at the Western Front on January 26.