Gordon Grdina got his start with the guitar, meaning that his name is lumped into jazz circles only by way of convenience. When he picked up the oud some 15 years ago, he started to carve out a new musical direction for himself that still hasn’t reached its natural conclusion. Albums like Barrel Fire, Her Eyes Illuminate, No Difference, and Inroads all run the gamut from free jazz to the sounds of the Middle East with a stop in heavier, chrunchier territory in between. For Ejdeha, Grdina has formed an acoustic quartet named the Marrow with cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Mark Helias, and percussionist Hamin Honari. The sound of plucked strings vibrating over dry wood is the order of the day here, and Grdina probably doesn’t care whether or not it qualifies as jazz.
Even if it doesn’t register as a sonic slap to the face, Ejdeha is still a dense album where a great deal is going on just below the surface. Helias’s cello can serve both as an instrument of texture as well as a complementary lead to Grdina’s oud, and Honari is given credit for tombak, def, and the frame drum. Taken together, it’s a polyphony of the Arabic variety that holds its cards close to the chest. The title is the Farsi word for “dragon”, but the quiet, subtle nature of Grdina’s Marrow quartet suggests that this dragon is sleeping with one eye open, waiting for the right moment to pounce. The lunge never actually happens, though Ejdeha spends plenty of time heating up with an intense simmer.
The album features only seven compositions, all of which are Grdina originals. “Telesm” is the sound of the Marrow stretching, yawning, awakening from a long rest. The four musicians timidly test their surroundings with rubato passages and melodies of a modest range. It’s with “Idiolect” when Marrow gets up gets the ball rolling on its day. Here, Grdina plays a tightly wound cyclical figure on the oud while everyone else mimics the rhythm masterfully. The title track is just a touch slower and more deliberate in its statement of the melody. For “Bordeaux Bender”, it sounds like everyone has returned to the let’s-feel-our-way-around mentality of “Telesm” though with far more experimental harmonies.
The final three selections wrap up Ejdeha in grand fashion. “Wayward” sounds like a desert sandstorm wanting to turn into a full-blown tornado while practicing a great deal of restraint. The widest melodic range that Grdina has allowed for himself on the album serves as the foundation for “Full Circle”, a track that is too solitary sounding to serve as the album’s centerpiece (which is a small shame). “Boubacar”, written in honor of Boubacar Traoré, could have functioned just fine a solo track for the oud. In fact, that’s what it is for the first two minutes. When the rest of the Marrow enter, they never overshadow the fact that it’s an homage to the Malian guitarist.
To a professional musician, saying that you picked up a particular instrument 15 years ago is like saying you picked it up yesterday. In the grand scheme of things, Gordon Grdina has just begun to explore the possibilities of the oud in jazz-influenced Middle Eastern music. He also could be further along than we think, meaning that Ejdeha could be seen in the future as a turning point for this particular musical blend. If not, it’s still quite the musical statement.