Gordon Grdina has managed to place a finger in every corner of the jazz/world fusion room while managing to record — maybe — his greatest achievement. His main instrument of choice, the oud, is an unorthodox one in any style of music that isn’t of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin. This is why he splits his time between the oud and the guitar and the bowed guitar. But together with bassist Mark Helias, drummer Kenton Loewen and saxophonist Tony Malaby, any style seems to be within Grdina’s grasp. Of course, he doesn’t shift everything around abruptly. Gordon Grdina has been gnawing on the edges of outer-jazz for a while now, and he knows how much diversity is enough when it comes to an hour of new music. However much Grdina rationalized or conceptualized on the building blocks of No Difference, the effort was worth it. This is one of those albums that rolls around about once a year, one that manages free itself of labels so it can elevated to a higher plane — one that is called “music”. And yet, it’s not pretentious. That could be one of No Difference‘s greatest achievements, that it manages to be so rich and fun to hear.
It all begins with “Hope in Being”, a composition that sprang from a set of oud and bass duets that Grdina and Helias were keen on recording. It’s easy to detect why they were so attached to the idea, it’s a sparsely-stated stroke of brilliance. Grdina’s series of Middle Eastern melodies require dexterity on his part but their arcs are easy for the listener to follow. Mark Helias is synchronized with his double bass all the way.
The duet arrangement returns at the fifth track, the inappropriately titled “Fast Times”. Whereas “Hope in Being” actually rode a groove, “Fast Times” is free-floating searching, the sound of both musicians playing volleyball in zero gravity. Two tracks later, “Cluster” escorts their game to the ether where Grdina’s oud and Helias’s bowed bass are hosted by eerie background scrapes, sounding as menacing as No Difference‘s cover art looks.
When Grdina picks up his guitar, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re headed towards hard-bop territory…yet. The clean broken chords of “Limbo” recall the That’s What-era Kottke as it gently rolls along with Helias’s fretless work. “Nayeli Joon” soft juggles arpeggios in waltz time for a similar effect. It’s finally on tracks like “The Throes”, “Leisure Park”, “Fierce Point” and “Visceral Voices” where Grdina lets his Montgomery fingers fly. This is a chance for Tony Malaby to show his stuff, but he waxes lyrical most often while Gordon Grdina himself goes for the sharp attack.
Still, Malaby is good for the occasional skronk. As it moves along, No Difference sounds like its working its way to a cliff with “Fierce Point” and “Visceral Voices” poised and ready to throw it over the edge. Somehow, somewhere, the album lands on its feet without much fuss, making it seem as if it were ready to get up and do the whole thing over again.
But No Difference is so thick in mood and texture, it’s difficult to imagine someone hitting the play button again right after it all wrapped up. If your favorite movie is one that mentally wipes you out, you may understand where I’m coming from here. No Difference could be your next favorite exhaustion and Gordon Grdina is probably off to direct more of the same.