Gordon Grdina: East Meets West

by Troy Collins

Gordon Grdina © 2022 Genevieve Monro

Gordon Grdina is a JUNO award-winning, Vancouver based oud player and guitarist whose diverse musicality investigates the tenuous intersections between mainstream jazz, free-form improvisation, and Arabic classical music. A former student of jazz legend Gary Peacock, Grdina’s singular approach to his chosen instruments and his decades-worth of genre exploration has earned him the recognition of his peers as a well-respected contributor to the jazz and world music scenes. Since the early 2000’s, Grdina has collaborated and performed with a wide array of musicians, including Paul Motian, Francois Houle, Mats Gustafsson, Mark Feldman, Eyvind Kang, and Marc Ribot. Grdina currently leads multiple ensembles in both Vancouver and New York, including the Gordon Grdina Quartet with Oscar Noriega, Russ Lossing, and Satoshi Takeishi; The Marrow with Hank Roberts, Mark Helias, Hamin Honari, and Josh Zubot; Square Peg with Christian Lillinger, Mat Maneri, and Shahzad Ismaily; Nomad Trio with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black; an improvising trio with Helias and Matthew Shipp, and Haram, a large ensemble that re-envisions the Arabic, Persian, and Sudanese repertoire of the 1950s and 1960s from a modern improviser’s perspective.

In an effort to find a new outlet to keep pace with his expansive roster of ongoing projects, Grdina launched his own label, Attaboygirl Records in 2021. The label is a collaborative effort with his partner, photographer Genevieve Monro, whose distinctive visual style defines the look of the imprint’s releases. The record company’s name was a favorite saying of Monro’s late father, an encouragement to the two partners at the helm of the endeavor. While Attaboygirl currently only documents Grdina’s efforts, the founders have plans to expand the label’s scope to include other artist’s projects as well. Pathways, an improvised session with Helias and Shipp, is Attaboygirl’s fifth release, following Night’s Quietest Hour, by Grdina’s large ensemble Haram; Oddly Enough: The Music of Tim Berne, Grdina’s solo Midi guitar album of new music written by Tim Berne; Klotski, the studio debut of Grdina’s Square Peg quartet; and Pendulum, a solo recording of oud and classical guitar improvisations. Pathways was released simultaneously with Boiling Point (Astral Spirits) the sophomore effort of Nomad Trio. I interviewed Grdina concurrent with the release of these two albums during the summer of 2022.


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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Gordon Grdina: I started playing piano at age 7 because everyone in my family had to. My mother was incredible, she made each of us practice for half an hour early before school. This went on until I was 12 or so. But I chose to start playing guitar at 9 because my older brother played, he had a mullet and was super cool, so I figured this is what I’ve got to do!

I got into the blues and improvising pretty quickly, which was really all I wanted to do.

I then got into jazz through wanting to learn to improvise over more complex forms. I remember really getting into Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, but the first two albums were Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, all through my guitar teacher at the time’s influence. He also had given me a Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Simon Shaheen album (Saltanah, on Water Lily Acoustics) when I was 13, to hear Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing slide, because I was into slide guitar and I was immediately blown away by the sound of the oud and Simon Shaheen’s incredible playing. So that started me listening to oud players and Arabic music.

I went to jazz school after high school at Capilano University and Western Washington University where I studied with Chuck Isreals. I was focused on Jim Hall and Bill Evans pretty predominantly. I then studied with Gary Peacock for five years privately while playing every gig I could around Vancouver and improvising free music at the underground collective 1067. This time period solidified my core understanding of improvisation and ideas about music, etc. At the end of this time, I recorded with Gary and Paul Motian for Songlines Records and started touring whenever possible.

TC: I’m curious what led to your interest in Arabic music? (Other than your guitar teacher giving you an influential Arabic music album when you were young, of course.) Is there any family history connecting you to that tradition?

GG: I don’t have any Arabic heritage. I’m Slovenian, Italian, and French Canadian, I just fell in love with the sound. There was something so similar between the free modulation of the Maqam and free jazz that I was attracted to, as well as the instrument lending itself to linear polyphonic development that really grabbed me. But back then when I first heard it, I think it was deeper than that. I think intuitively people are attracted to things on a different level, I think that has to do with recognizing something that you also already have in you as well, and the connection is instantaneous. People always say the instrument or path chooses you and I think there is some underlying truth to that, not that everything is predetermined but that we’re organically programmed for certain areas of development.

TC: Other than Simon Shaheen, were there any other influential oud players that you heard upon first discovering the instrument that inspired you to take it up yourself? I’m thinking of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, John Berberian, Anouar Brahem, Rabih Abou-Khalil ...

GG: Oh yeah, the biggest after Simon was definitely Hamza El Din, then Rabih Abou-Khalil, Munir Brashir, Anour Brahem, Udi Hrant, and John Berberian.

TC: Switching gears a bit from artistry to artistic output, what ultimately led to the decision to start your own label? I’d assume it’s because of how prolific you’ve been as of late – perhaps other labels couldn’t keep up?

GG: Mainly because I had a lot of music I wanted to release and it was hard to find labels to put it all out. But also, I wanted almost everything to start being released from one label to contextualize all of the output. I feel like the different projects complement each other and show a more complete understanding of the music I’m trying to create. I felt like when different albums came out on different labels some releases would get missed or just be visible to a certain audience and I really wanted to try and make everything more inclusive and unified. So that people who have mainly just been listening to oud-based or freely improvised projects would also be aware of the guitar-based and written projects, etc.

TC: The idea of contextualization in today’s highly stratified world makes perfect sense to me. That said, what advantages and challenges do you find in maintaining so many different groups? And how many different groups are you currently working with right now?

GG: Yeah, I find the stratified world a little limiting and uninspiring. I’m interested in a lot of different things and have a lot of different sounds and ideas I want to explore. I think this is similar to a lot of artists out there. Not many people I know are only interested in “one thing.” Some of them only release their own work maybe in one clearly defined space, but then maybe explore the other sides of their personality as a side person. It might not be the best financial decision, but artistically it’s very satisfying.

And having so many groups is both exciting and difficult. I feel like each group creates a different world and group chemistry that is inspiring. A lot of the musicians I’ve been playing with for a long time.

Right now, the main groups I’m working with are: 

Square Peg
Nomad Trio
The Marrow

There are other projects, but for right now I’m focusing on these projects.

TC: In reference to your role as a composer for multiple ensembles, do you write parts with specific players in mind, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are open to interpretation by different groups of players? And regarding such interpretations, how do the personal and/or stylistic dynamics of individual band members shape the inner workings of those groups?

GG: I usually write for specific players and a specific group, but when I’m thinking about a repertoire for a group or an album, I’ll think about songs that I’ve written for other groups that might work. I usually go off whether or not I can hear the group playing the piece or not and then from there I leave most of the interpretation up to the musicians. I’m a firm believer in hiring people to be themselves. I’m hiring them because I love what they do, and I want them to feel comfortable to explore and add whatever they want to the music. I’m really not trying to control the situation that much. This lends itself to new interpretations each time the pieces are played and allows for constant surprises. I try to be only as hands on as is necessary to make sure things don’t seem uncomfortable and without direction.

The individual members’ style and dynamics are incredibly important and define the development and chemistry of each group. That’s what creates a unique band, choosing musicians with unique personalized sounds that I can hear working well together and then getting out of the way so that the natural blending and development of that sound can happen.

TC: Speaking of leading multiple groups, you performed at FIMAV (Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville) this year with more than one ensemble. Who played and how did the show go?

GG: That was incredible. We put together two of my groups, The Marrow and Square Peg. We each did a set and then played briefly together. The Marrow was Mark Helias (bass), Hank Roberts (cello), and Hamin Honari (Persian percussion). Square Peg was Shahzad Ismaily (electric bass and moog), Mat Maneri (viola), and Christian Lillinger (drums).

It came together really well, everyone got along, and we had a blast hanging out. It was a good combination with equal space for everyone to be themselves. I brought music that would have made sense if played in either ensemble, but would have been expressed quite differently, which allowed the music to dynamically shift further than it would have if played in either ensemble. Rhythmically, it grooved really hard. I think it was a very special international debut that probably won’t happen that often as the scheduling is a nightmare. I got a lot of positive feedback from the show and hope we can do it again. Victo is a fantastic festival and really supportive of the music. I feel incredibly fortunate that the show was able to happen.

TC: Thinking about all your different projects, although your compositions and improvising are quite adventurous, you typically seem to prefer a more structured approach; most of your writing is melodic, whereas quite a few of your contemporaries tend to compose in a far more abstract manner. How do you balance the disparity between freedom and form, both in your writing and improvising?

GG: I try and balance things in relation to each musician and how things will work best, but I definitely have a more melodic and traditional approach to expressing those ideas to the musicians. It’s usually because I hear a group of musicians’ sounds working well together and then I hear music that I try and write down as specifically as possible, and standard notation still seems to be the best way to do that for me. I have used graphic scores and conduction in some groups but have found that for me they work best within a more notated structure. My graphic score writing, which is quite limited, is also quite specific and the conduction has been mostly used only in Haram, which works during improvs where we have developed our own shorthand language, nothing near the level of a Butch Morris or anything, just quick defined statements to keep the large group together and shift improvisational ideas quickly.

The most extensive writing I’ve done has been with my Quartet with Oscar Noreiga, Russ Lossing, and Satoshi Takeishi. Most of those pieces have been written specifically for them and are quite long with many different sections developed within each piece. I haven’t had the time to work on new music for the group but will again in the future. Those guys really shaped the music and redefined the compositions and taught me a lot about leading and composing for a band.

TC: The diversity present in your Quartet reminds me a bit of Nomad Trio. How did that ensemble come to be? It’s a fascinatingly balanced combination of all your diverse interests, from rock-oriented power trio excursions, and acoustic, oud-based meditations, to free form improvisations. Most of your projects primarily focus on one aspect (Haram, for example), but Nomad Trio encapsulates almost all your interests.

GG: I had known Jim and been a fan since Pachora but we had never played together, and Matt I got to know through Tim Berne. Matt’s duo album with Ches Smith blew me away. I hadn’t heard Jim and Matt play together in any ensemble on record although I know they had played together before. I could hear both of them fitting together really well. I also wanted there to be a lot of space and freedom as they can really play anything written but are also master improvisers. I really love Matt’s left hand and ability to cover multiple time zones and polyrhythms, so I wanted that freedom in the low end. I also wanted the freedom to exchange roles and support or lead or simultaneously create together without too many grids or clearly defined roles. Having us both able to cover a large range created a freedom to play or not play whenever. They’re also both rhythmically insane, so I’ve been able to learn a great deal from them. Almost instantly there was a natural multilayered rhythmic space that we can each live in while connecting that I haven’t experienced with any other group. These defined separate rhythmic spaces that connect on a larger level have really defined the sound of the group. It’s a really open ensemble that can go in any direction at any time so it can encapsulate most of my interests fluidly. I think the Quartet also encapsulates most of my interests as well, although it expresses itself in a different way. I’m really excited about each project for different reasons, some because they are so specialized and others like these two because there is such a wide sonic territory covered throughout the set.

TC: So then, considering your ability to navigate multiple styles in a wide array of different ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

GG: I’m still inspired by completely improvised music. It doesn’t always work but I always learn something about myself and the process and find it the best way to quickly and clearly get to know somebody. The group with Matt Shipp and Mark Helias is a prime example of that process working well. The group hasn’t played very much but we’ve travelled a lot of territory over a short period of time and the new album has taken another turn. I don’t have a lot of projects that use a standard head/solo/head format, because I’ve done it so much in my life, and I do often find that constraining and uninteresting in a compositional and group improvisational context, but I’ve recently started to write a few pieces that follow that format and will probably start working in that capacity again sometime soon.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

GG: I usually like to play the music live with a group on the road for as many shows as possible and hear the music develop and then go into the studio. That doesn’t mean that we find a way to play the music perfect and then recreate that in the studio. I’m just looking for the music to gain a sense of ease, with multiple possibilities explored before playing whichever version shows up at the studio. I’m pretty chill about the studio experience as I feel you’re just documenting a version of something which isn’t better or worse than any of the other versions and I’m not super precious about getting the best or perfect version of something. This music is meant to be alive and fluid and have a sense of chaos and abandon to it. If that is too constrained for the purpose of perfection, something is missing.

TC: In the same line, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

GG: I like creating a physical archive and wish that it could always be vinyl, but it’s just too expensive and time consuming for the amount of albums I can sell. I do like CDs as well and still have a CD player in my car which is where I listen to most new music. I also like to download and use Bandcamp. Obviously, we make nothing on streaming from the regular mainstream sources. I use those for releases but feel that it is mostly just for advertising the music. I try and promote my music through Bandcamp and do most of my purchasing there. I hope that remains a good source of distribution for artists. This music has been a niche market for a long time and is completely dependent on a small, international, involved, and conscientious audience to allow it to survive. Having a globally accessible distribution network is essential for keeping it alive. The touring circuits and local concert promotion and development are also dependent on individuals that love this music. It’s very human and interdependent. There is something very beautiful, fragile, and impermanent about that.

TC: In conclusion, what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

GG: Coming out this fall is an album recorded in Tokyo back in 2019 that will finally be coming out on Black Dot and Attaboygirl with Michiyo Yagi, Tamaya Honda, and Koichi Makagami. The band is called The Twain. I’ve been really excited for this record to come out for a long time. It has many sections but is over an hour long. The first 22 and last 22 minutes are on the record and the whole piece is on a CD that will come with the vinyl. It is a unique album to say the least – really heavy raging metal almost at some parts, with Koichi’s incredible vocalizations throughout, with mellow classical guitar, thermin, and flute in some sections. It’s all over the map and nuts.

I also have a duo with Christian Lillinger that is currently being edited. This project uses the Midi guitar that I used for the Tim Berne Project. Christian is insane and we’re looking to play a lot as a duo over the next couple years. It’s gonna’ sound big and intense, and should be released in the spring.

Christian, Mat Maneri, and I have an improv record that will be coming out on Clean Feed Records next March as well. This is from an older session and I am happy it has finally found a home.

I’m recording a new Square Peg album at the end of August as well as a new duo record with Russ Lossing which will be mostly piano and oud. Russ is incredible and I’m excited to see what happens with the music.

I just recorded a new Nomad Trio album on the last tour and we may have a few live tracks being released on Bandcamp.


© 2022 Troy Collins

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