Guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, but more and more, he is interacting with creative musicians in New York. His latest recording, which features his guitar work in the main, is with a trio including pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black, both card-carrying members of a Brooklyn scene that long ago stopped feeling like it could be contained by the word “jazz”. It is Grdina’s first recording on the independent label Skirl, also based out of Brooklyn and spearheaded by saxophonist Chris Speed.
Nomad is a potent mix. Grdina’s music sometimes incorporates themes and influences from Iraq or Egypt, with his oud playing helping to blend traditions. He is also an accomplished free improviser and a player with strong instincts for motivic improvising in the post-bop tradition. As with so many other Vancouver musicians, he crosses the borders of harmonic and rhythmic daring without much fuss. The music here sets up loose structures for wild improvising but also includes a healthy menu of hot unison licks and fleet melodies.
The partnership with Mitchell and Black, then, makes sense. Black, of course, was the rocking jazz drummer who powered so many brilliant “downtown” sessions 20 years ago (with, for example, Chris Speed) and has since made both sensitive and flashy sessions with so many musicians. Mitchell leaps from relatively mainstream playing (with trumpeter Dave Douglas) to frenetic New Jazz that blends complex composition in wild time patterns with near-heavy metal veins of power. With Grdina bringing his slightly acid-toned guitar into this conversation, the result sounds natural and fiery.
On “Ride Home”, for example, Mitchell plays a composed and repeating bass line with his left hand that steps in an almost-but-not-quite-regular pattern. Above this core, Grdina improvises with a stabbing and patient style, stringing together patterns that circle Mitchell’s shifting tonal center. Black, at the same time, declines to keep time in any traditional way, playing splashes and rolls, syncopated explosions, and clattering tumbles, all contributing to the slightly off-center conversation. The performance seems like it might have been completely improvised (though spontaneously “composed” with artful deliberation) until it concludes with a unison line that comes out of the Mitchell bass line and then explodes into a ripping treble line could have been a circular lick from a Mahavishnu Orchestra track. The blood pumps faster all of a sudden as all the improvising is given an exclamation mark in focused, gestural composition.
The opening track, “Wildfire”, functions similarly, or it seems like it will. With no bass player in the band, Mitchell again handles the low end, jabbing and leaping across the slow frequencies at the same time that Black plays a thrashing funk that never quite settles into a pure groove. The guitar and piano lines seem purely improvised at first, but they soon start circling each other with such deliberation that you know that are headed to a predetermined place. Halfway through, they converge in a hard climax only to fall apart again, teasing the listener with near-completion. The effect is of two trapeze artists suddenly heading into a clenched hand connection but instead flying off on their own. Will they truly connect at the end? No. Instead, the trio slowly pulls the adrenaline out of the performance so that each player gently brings the improvisation down to earth.
A purer groove propels “Thanksgiving”. Jim Black transfixes with solo drums for several minutes at the start. Mitchell’s bass line again acts as a kind of melody, with Grdina improvising until his melody and Mitchell’s right hand come into a clean unison. The written melody is long and largely without repetition, however, sounding more like New Jazz than fusion, leading to a section in which the two melody instruments go from composed unison to improvising counterpoint and back again. Wherever the tune develops, a funky bottom holds it together.
On the title track, it is Grdina who gets a virtuoso solo opening. When the band enters, it is in composed counterpoint for all three players, with Mitchell’s two independent hands making the trio sound like at least a quartet. This is Mitchell’s finest moment on Nomad, as he solos in a garrulous style, his left and right hands going at each other and Black’s drums with a punching thrill. The brilliance is that, while this is “jazz” in the classic sense of a swinging melody with chord changes that inspires melodically-related improvisation, Mitchell’s solo is in every respect inspired by the tone and structure of what was written rather than its harmonic form. And the feeling of unity is just as strong.
Grdina allows this band to move toward power in most cases, but it is also capable of gentle chemistry. “Lady Choral” is the only place where Grdina picks up his oud, but the opening is marked by an introspective piano solo that uses Mitchell’s ability to generate searching overtones. Grdina joins with a gentle filigree on his acoustic instrument, and Black stays almost entirely on his toms, sounding like a hand drummer. The culminating melody is slow, like a tide rising and falling, rich in atmosphere.
On “Benbow”, the leader provides the gentle introduction, ringing his guitar without distortion in a wandering series of arpeggios and chordal movements. The band joins on the written theme, which echoes the chords of the opening, leading to another extraordinary Mitchell solo that uses atonal clusters, but with the utmost lyrical result. When Grdina reenters on guitar, he powers the performance with more distortion such that Black and Mitchell leave ballad mode and complete things with a rising edge. Again, the use of sudden unison lick allows all three players to converge on a moment of power and ringing clarity.
The trio is balanced throughout Nomad, with each voice given about equal weight and with ensemble sections sounding like they are the product of inspiration from all three musicians. Grdina knows the New York scene well enough to have chosen collaborators well-suited to his sensibility. In fact, the sidemen are so good that they tend to run away with the show on several tracks. Black still sounds like no other drummer in the music—free and tight, popping with excitement but always paying attention to texture. When what is required is a sense of surprise, he hides the beat without seeming sloppy, and when it’s time to play with power, he is both volcanic and light. Mitchell, as usual, brings a composer’s brilliance to his improvising, outshining Grdina for pure interest on his solos.
But, if the leader can sometimes get hidden in his band, the credit goes to him for conceiving of such a rich environment for playing by others. The primary architecture of Nomad consists of collective playing, during which he holds his own with two elite voices in creative music. And, therefore, he seems like one too.