Gordon Grdina Quartet
Cooper’s Park (Songlines)
The old argument against improvised music—where are the melodies?—has never been less relevant than when applied to Gordon Grdina’s recent work. Based on some of his more abrasive performances in the past—which have bordered on abstract noise—this might seem strange, but lately the guitarist and oud player has shown to be as strong a composer of memorable themes as he is an instrumental virtuoso.
Take, for instance, the plethora of wonderful tunes that rush and spin through Cooper’s Park’s 18-minute-long title track. Grdina’s opening statement, played in near-unison by his electric guitar and Oscar Noriega’s alto sax, with bass counterpoint from Russ Lossing’s piano, suggests that his latest music owes as much to the more intellectual side of prog as it does to free jazz. It’s followed by a passage of parallel play in which piano, sax, and guitar wend their individual ways over Satoshi Takeishi’s careening drums, and then by a spare, atomized venture into deep listening, after which the initial theme, or a version of it, reappears. Twelve minutes in, Grdina kicks on his wah-wah pedal to introduce an almost metal-flavoured riff, which in turn leads into a further quick, harmonized chase sequence, followed by scrabbly free-play, and then another impossibly precise statement of the theme.
It’s the kind of performance that is both exhausting and exhilarating, a description that can fairly be applied to a lot of Grdina’s output. But not all of it: his more meditative side emerges whenever he turns to the oud, and the Middle Eastern instrument is at the centre of “Wayward”, which earns its title with an episodic, dreamlike beginning before returning to tight group interaction midway through. Noriega switches to clarinet here, helping to create an almost avant-Turkish sound that’s unique in North American music.
None of this is easy listening, but there’s a lot to love about this music’s inspirational energy.