[21 January 2007]
The young Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina must have thought he’d died and gone to jazz-trio heaven when he successfully persuaded his mentor and teacher, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian to play with him on this, his debut as a leader. With going on a century’s playing experience between them, these two super-heavyweights can almost certainly be relied upon to lift any date out of the ordinary—and probably not even break a sweat. Moreover, both of these giants are rightly credited with playing pivotal roles in helping to shape the modern jazz musician’s approach to freedom in improvisation. Motian is widely recognised as having done much to free the drums from conventional time, while Peacock made up half of the rhythm section—along with Sunny Murray—that provided the astonishingly fluid foundation for Albert Ayler’s 1964 masterpiece and milestone of free jazz, Spiritual Unity. With this kind of pedigree on offer, even before you’ve pressed ‘Play’ you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re pretty much guaranteed an interesting listen.
As if all that weren’t intriguing enough, Grdina himself is something of a fascinating proposition. With interests running from mainstream jazz, through free-form improvisation, to Arabic classical music, and as dedicated to playing the middle-eastern oud as the guitar, he’s most definitely not your average, run-of-the-mill jazz hack. Unsurprisingly, then, Think Like the Waves is a dense, cerebral, and intense recording that showcases this tantalising trio’s various different responses to the idea of close group improvisation—responses that fall roughly into three main camps.
Several of the pieces here conjure up a darkly bubbling, extraordinarily loose version of the free jazz aesthetic—one that eschews Fire Music pyrotechnics in favour of lyricism, melody, and restraint. Motian’s drumming is exquisitely sensitive on tunes such as “Different Places”, deconstructing the idea of rhythm with the sparest touch of brushes to snare drum, and the sound of lightly struck cymbals ringing out as pure, unhurried sound punctuation. “String Quartet #6” takes things slightly further out: a dose of pure abstract expressionism, with the guitar and bass chasing each other round and round in circles while the drums nag away at a sense of forward momentum, Motian introducing a subtle hint of rhythm with the hi-hat peddle, impishly implying a tempo while everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere.
Then there are the tunes that centre on Grdina’s exotic oud playing: dark and spicy cameos peppered with nimble plucking; either with Peacock’s bass matching the dancing oud lines, lending them weight and authority, or, as on the title track, casting adrift into uncharted regions of improvisation, creating a kind of avant-world music sitting defiantly in a genre entirely its own.
Finally, there are the tunes on which the musicians clearly couldn’t help but swing. The opening track, “Yellow Spot into the Sun”, has a breezy, ‘60s feel; “100 Years” has driving, martial drums, relentless, rumbling bass, and an angular guitar solo; and “Combustion” is as close as the band gets to a straight-ahead stormer, with up-tempo drums, fast walking bass, and Grdina coming on with a touch of the Charlie Christians.
So, on paper, this sounds like an absolutely first class left-field jazz album, destined to reach the top of every ‘Best Of’ list available. Except, it doesn’t quite work like that. Maybe it’s the extreme seriousness of intent, maybe it’s the intensely inward-looking nature of the group’s interactions, or maybe it’s the almost palpable sense of restraint—for whatever reason, this album never quite catches fire. Rather, it seems to waft by in a slightly distracted and distant haze of absent-minded ingenuity. Strangely, for all its creativity and inventiveness, without some serious effort on the listener’s part it runs a very real danger of becoming background music. The bottom line is, to all but the most passionate aficionados of improvised music, this is more than likely going to sound like a load of self-indulgent noodling—and let’s face it, that’s never a good look.