Gordon Grdina Trio: the gateway from jazz guitar to oud

"I'm golden. And then, Gordon grabs the oud."

Gordon Grdina Trio: the gateway from jazz guitar to oud

Before it closed last year, the only way a young jazz guitar player in Vancouver could throw together a trio and play a few tunes for money was to play at the Libra Room. From a distance, it was just another jazz venue. But to anybody who played there, it was a playground of musical experimentation.

Restaurant patrons were usually either talking too loud to care about what you were playing or, in the case of a Tuesday night at 11:30 pm or so, completely absent. This made for a pretty relaxed atmosphere for musicians, and many treated their gigs there as sort of open rehearsals. Sometimes if I was lucky, Bruno would text me on a Friday afternoon frantically asking me to play the coveted 7:00-9:00 pm spot if somebody else had canceled last minute.

On some of those occasions, I would be opening for Gordon Grdina.

Most of the time I saw him there, it would be just him and the drummer from this same show, Kenton Loewen, which was called “Pink and Brown” instead of the normal Gordon Grdina Trio. Gordon would pull out this beautiful and surprising instrument on stage in front of an unsuspecting Commercial Drive crowd and improvise loudly and chaotically with Kenton, the two of them appearing to have the time of their lives. I always had an appreciation for it, but I really only ever got to see them play as I was waiting for the bar manager to get my band payment so I could leave.

So I’m glad I got to sit down and finally take in the Gordon Grdina experience like I should have done those years ago.

To me, Gordon played this show sort of like a pied piper of the oud. Instead of luring children out of the city of Hamelin, he lures jazz guitar players like me into listening to him play the oud, and I’m not mad about it. He starts out the show playing in the familiar guitar trio setting—with some aggressive free improv, sure, but not unlike anything I had seen before. The guitar and drum solos are unencumbered by accompaniment but when the band comes back in for the melody of this first composition, it sounds inspired by Ornette Coleman or John Zorn. Abrasive and harsh like punk rock but still rooted in the jazz tradition.

Their second tune is quite a bit more stylistically down the middle, featuring some baroque-like harmonies on the guitar and played in 3/4 time. It also features an unaccompanied guitar solo, but this time on a tune with more defined chord changes that Gordon breaks down in a contrapuntal style, showing a sophisticated understanding of the instrument.

By the third tune, we’re shown just how broad the picture of this group’s inspiration is by hearing a pretty faithful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. Gordon’s guitar solo style on this one meshes influence of John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. So at this point, I’m sitting pretty, right? This is somewhat like what I do when I perform, I can define all the things they’re doing pretty competently. I’m golden.

And then, Gordon grabs the oud.

It’s not like I wasn’t expecting this, but suddenly the vibe is markedly different. It’s not a bad thing—far from it. The musicians are all the same; Tommy is still on the bass and Kenton is still on drums. But now Gordon is strumming away at this incredible exotic instrument that has a whole new acoustic quality, using a completely separate technique from guitar. No, this is not a guitarist messing around on an instrument that looks vaguely like a guitar.

This is a master of the oud at work.

The energy is still good, it’s just transformed. On the first and third tunes of the set, Gordon could jump around the stage with his guitar strapped securely to his body when he wanted to. With the oud, he’s now seated, cradling the instrument closely to him. This is like if Coltrane put the horn down and picked up an accordion. I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to go, but I’m definitely not leaving.

Over the next three compositions, Gordon leads the band with more of a focused and almost meditative quality. Removing the guitar means removing chords from the performance, but this also introduces more riff-based compositions, often featuring Gordon and Tommy playing in unison. This works remarkably well since the oud has a lower range than the guitar does and is a fretless instrument, like the bass, but still has a separate sonic texture from the bass because it is played with a plectrum.

The plectrum creates a dry and more percussive articulation that resonates throughout the stage in a way a guitar just can’t. With this new trio setup, both bass and oud are able to get “in between” the notes together and really lock in. Taking this in, along with Kenton’s high-energy drum style, one could see the parallels between this group and Led Zeppelin attempting a take on Middle Eastern music on “Kashmir”, but inverted.

This is not an attempt at Middle Eastern music, this is Middle Eastern music, just with some John Bonham thrown in.

It definitely felt authentic once they brought on vocalist Emad Armoush to beautifully sing an Iraqi folk tune with them for the last oud feature before switching back to guitar to end the set.

Once the group had changed back to a standard guitar trio, I couldn’t help but notice the subtle similarities in technique that Gordon had been bringing to the guitar from the oud this whole time: the right hand picking, the use of drone notes, the left hand legato technique. Suddenly, I realized his approach to the jazz guitar is much, much deeper than I might have given him credit for at the beginning of this set.

Finishing off with a slow blues, the trio gently drops us listeners off back where we are likely most familiar. With the oud portion of the set happening sandwiched in the middle, it’s almost like it was a dream. Like waking up comfortably in your own bed after a night of raucous partying. We hardly got any time to sit there and just take it in before we had moved on to something else, and I think that’s by design. Now I know that I just want to experience it again, and I’ll make sure I do as soon as I can.

Gordon Grdina performed at Winter Jazz, an online festival presented by Coastal Jazz and Granville Island, on Friday, February 19, 2021. His trio broadcasted out of Performance Works, via Side Door.

Jazz fans can also read Rhythm Changes’ coverage of the Jamie Lee Trio performance earlier that day.