Gordon Grdina is here to throw cold water all over your conventional jazz -- and that is a refreshing thing indeed.
Repetition -- that word sounds so undesirable when used in the context of the arts. Tell a composer or improviser that he or she is using repetition in any way and they may take it as a hit, suggesting that they are low on ideas and/or padding out the length of what they consider in their mind to be high art. Yet repetition is intrinsic to music. How else are we expected to remember all our favorite parts of the song after hearing it just once? How else are we expect to move music as product without a few built-in cycles to grease the wheels?
Gordon Grdina Quartet
Release Date: 3 Nov 2017
From Handel to Hank Williams, the use of repetition has driven many a song into our public consciousness and then some. After you're finished calibrated your thinking to acknowledge repetition as an acceptable word within the arts, let me introduce you to an artist who recently went out of his way to avoid it. "Forms can sometimes feel like you're being strangled and talked down to," says modern jazz guitarist Gordon Grdina. "I wanted the music to continually move, feeling free but clearly directed.
The music to which he is referring are the nine originals he recorded with his quartet with pianist Russ Lossing, reedsman Oscar Noriega, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. Inroads is the album's title, carrying enough metaphoric weight to justify Ornette Coleman, Bartok, Webern, and Soundgarden all being name-dropped as influences. Normally, I roll my eyes at such lists since they are often just a way of saying "See how widely urbane and popular my influences can be!" But if your music transcends those pretentions, you get a pass. Gordon Grdina's quartet gets a pass because Inroads is just too damn fine to write off as another exercise in the ongoing Please Admire My Playlist pageant.
When it comes to "Not Sure", the longest piece on Inroads, I hear yet another influence: Zooid. Whether Grdina and company were thinking about Threadgill and company is unknown to me, but there are enough similarities set the bells a-ringin'. And when it comes to striking up a similarity within contemporary jazz, it's hard to do better than that. This is a mode where notes are pinging up and down, back and forth throughout a rather generous scale. Polyphony is at an all time high. Repetition is abandoned after a "melodic" figure gets repeated just once. Lossing is turned loose for a thoughtful rubato passage. When the rest of the quartet returns, Grdina hits the distortion pedal so that he can match Noriega's newfound level of saxophone screech. The track then wraps up with a pounding death march rhythm from everyone except Takeishi, who takes this opportunity to solo like he's trying to kill his drum kit. "Not Sure" may only be eleven minutes and 38 seconds, but it moves like an album unto itself.
Elsewhere, Inroads continues to live up to its name. The album opens and closes with "Giggles" and "Giggles II". The former is a solo track performed by Lossing, which is unassuming in nature while being very daring harmonically. The latter could pass for a duet between Grdina on either guitar or oud, and Lossing was it not for Takeishi's subtle shading. On the "Giggles" pieces, the sound is delicate. Elsewhere, it's anything but. Lossing begins "P.B.S." in very unorthodox fashion where the harmony of his piano and his Fender Rhodes are at odds with one another. "Fragments" takes advantage of its length much like "Not Sure" does by giving the quartet a chance to provide a soundtrack to a schizophrenic nightmare where everyone is playing 16th notes, but no one is certain of the key signature. "Kite Fight" is Inroads's punk moment, both in spirit and in length. In just under two minutes, much racket is made yet just as much control is retained.
This is the fourth release by Gordon Grdina that I've reviewed, and he's proven to be a tough entity to pin down. He can be a tender writer but his sound can be challenging. Ferocity can get in the way of other traits for some listeners. Yet the effort to dig around inside of Barrel Fire, No Difference, and Her Eyes Illuminate paid dividends. Those releases were both bold and good. Inroads is bold and downright great.