Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio

Grdina Nomad Cover

GRDINA: Wild Fire. Nomad. Ride Home. Benbow. Thanksgiving. Lady Choral / Nomad Trio: Gordon Grdina, oud/gtr; Matt Mitchell, pno; Jim Black, dm / Skirl Records 044

Gordon Grdina is a jazz guitarist who recently made a “politically-charged album” entitled Resist with his septet. Since there are millions of us in the arts world who aren’t resisting anything except a Socialist takeover of America, I was very happy that this, his most recent release, backs off from alienating half of his audience and just concentrates on music.

Judging from the opening track, Grdina’s music doesn’t just use atonalism; it plunges into it head-first, mixing it up with asymmetric rhythms and, like so many free jazz units, hopes that some of the notes they exude will somehow stick to the wall and create a pattern. In Wild Fire, I found the most coherent statements being made by Grdina himself, and thankfully he is not a guitarist who plays in a wishy-washy fashion although I think his coarse tone leans too heavily in the direction of rock music. Yet the notes he plays and the structures he is trying to create are all in the free jazz idiom, and by and large he does an excellent job trying to be somewhat coherent.

Throughout Grdina’s long opening solo, pianist Matt Mitchell plays what sounds through the wall of electronics to be a repeated pattern of notes, over and over and over, and by the 5:08 mark Grdina seems to just give in and join him in this, at which point Mitchell’s piano explodes into atonal flurries of notes on the keyboard. I always wonder, however, about the drummers in such ensembles, as it sounds to me as if they’re not even trying to follow the lead lines but are simply creating patterns that go against the grain of whatever rhythm the lead voices are doing, and Jim Black seems to be no exception to this rule. (I used to marvel at the way Ornette Coleman’s drummers and bassists could follow him no matter how far-out the lead lines were, but in today’s free jazz world “following the leader” seems to be out the window.) It’s good playing within its own rules, but Grdina could just as easily have spiced in a random drum patterns from someone else’s pre-recorded tape to get the same effect. Towards the end, the tempo relaxes and we get a fade-out ending.

Nomad opens with a fine guitar solo, and here Grdina is not playing as heavily in the rock style. His tone is excellent, as is his improvisation. At about the one-minute mark, he increases the tempo, and at 1:35 the piano and drums come in behind him. This time, Black actually seems to be complementing the echt-boogie rhythm set up by the guitar and piano. This is really a fine piece, even better structured and therefore (for me, at least) more interesting than Wild Fire. Matt Mitchell’s rumbling, single-line bass lines are well complemented by the leader’s guitar, though he then backs away to allow Mitchell his own extended solo. When Grdina returns, however, his guitar is again in rock mode. Hey, Gordon: if you wanna play rock so badly, just start a rock band, OK? Eventually, both guitar and piano engage in some lively duetting as the piece moves towards its conclusion.

Ride Home opens with a walking bass line on the piano, over which Grdina’s guitar and Black’s drums create their own unusual patterns. Here, I didn’t mind Black’s drum patterns as much because this really did seem to be an “every man for himself” piece from the standpoint of rhythm. Eventually things get very thorny indeed. I did not appreciate the heavy rock beat near the end. In Benbow, we retreat from the sound barrier as Grdina plays a superb, and fairly soft, guitar solo for the first two minutes before Black comes in behind him with some cymbal washes. At about the four-minute mark, Grdina bows out and allows Mitchell to take over with a solo of his own, but here I felt that the pianist was not as clear in direction or concept as the guitarist was, but towards the end he creates a swirling pattern into which Grdina re-enters. The music enters a sort of rhythmic tape-loop, a repeated pattern that takes us to the end.

Thanksgiving opens with a Black drum solo, interesting so far as it goes without really going anywhere before settling into a rhythm that sounds like the old song La Cucaracha. The piano enters in the bass range playing a single-note sequence, then the guitar comes in with its own strange lines. This one, by the way, actually leans more in the direction of tonality, albeit in a minor key with a very sinister melodic line. Eventually, piano and guitar set up a sort of atonal canon in which they answer each other’s phrases, repeating the rhythm but not always the exact notes. The canon returns for the end.

In the final number, Lady Choral, Mitchell plays a very gentle piano solo which continues for more than two minutes. The guitar and drums enter very softly behind him at around 2:32, then they carry on a three-way conversation, staying quiet and reserved, until Grdina breaks away for an a cappella solo. At 6:34 Black’s drums re-enter, playing soft patterns behind the guitarist, then the piano comes in with the guitar complementing him with chords. It’s a strange but interesting piece that makes a fine conclusion to this album.

A bit of a mixed bag, but there are certainly some excellent numbers here and some good moments even in the more chaotic ones.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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