Gordon Grdina Quartet: Inroads

Until now, I've tended to identify Gordon Grdina by his oud playing, but this new recording suggests a considerable readjustment is in order. Yes, oud is still present, but Grdina's electric guitar is just as, if not more, prominently featured on Inroads, and further to that the recording is anything but a solo affair. As per the quartet name, the release is very much a group effort, one marked by strong contributions from all members. It's still, however, very much Grdina's band: all but two pieces are credited to him, the authorship of the others shared between him and woodwinds player Oscar Noriega (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet). Rounding out this solid outfit are drummer Satoshi Takeishi and Russ Lossing on piano and Rhodes.

Stylistically, the character of the material sees a less Arabic-influenced sound from Grdina than we've heard before (traces of it do, however, surface within “Apocalympics”), with the music instead exemplifying well-integrated cross-fertilizations between multiple genres. Jazz is present, of course, in the material's free-wheeling improvisations and rhythmic thrust, but there are intricate through-composed passages that reflect a classical influence, as well some harder-edged, high-energy playing that suggests the impact of alt-rock on the quartet's sensibility. Grdina's citing of Bartok, Ornette Coleman, Soundgarden, and Webern as reference points for the recording testifies to the eclectic mindset in play.

In an interview relating to the release, Grdina says of the album's material, “I wanted the music to continually move, feeling free but clearly directed,” and also acknowledges having listened to Tim Berne during the recording's development. Not incidentally, Noriega plays in his Snakeoil band, and certainly it's possible to draw comparisons between the intricate nature of Berne's writing and certain pieces on Inroads (“Not Sure,” “P.B.S.”). Grdina also admits that the chemistry of the quartet didn't immediately come together; short rehearsals and assorted gigs occurred over the course of a year, but it wasn't until the four went out on the road for a string of dates that the playing solidified. Such a development isn't hard to understand: the music is often complex and contrapuntal, and as such took a while for the players' individual lines to lock into place.

As mentioned, Inroads isn't a vehicle for the leader's oud playing, something made clear from the outset when “Giggles” introduces the album with a solo piano rumination. Subsequent to that, long-form settings, ranging from eight to almost twelve minutes, are offset by shorter pieces, a couple no longer than two minutes at a time. The longest, “Not Sure,” wends through multiple episodes, the playing weaving between formal composition and improvisation in unpredictable manner; stopping abruptly, the material segues from an uptempo passage into a freer textural exploration before re-assembling for a quasi-classical section that itself blossoms into high-decibel skronk, with Noriega's sax wailing and Grdina's atonal guitar shards at the forefront. As aggressive as some moments are, there are others of a gentler persuasion, “Semantics,” a lyrical duet between Grdina and a bass clarinet-wielding Noriega, and “Fragments,” a wide-ranging exploration for oud, piano, and bass clarinet, cases in point.

In the final analysis, Inroads definitely invites a re-appraisal of who Grdina is as a player, composer, and band-leader, especially when the album sees him shifting from the Derek Bailey-styled moves of “Kite Fight” to rock-inflected playing in “Apocalympics,” a ten-minute opus that could pass for a modern-day Soft Machine homage by the quartet.

December 2017