Gordon Grdina: The WL Interview

Purveyor of: Arabic-inspired free-improvisation and chamber-jazz composition

File next to: Matthew Shipp, Jerusalem In My Heart

Playing: Wavelength Monthly Music Series: Solstizio, Friday June 21 @ 918 Bathurst. Get tickets here!

Gordon Grdina is an incredibly talented guitarist/oud player and composer/improviser as well as a beautiful human being. Inspired by free jazz, heavy metal, Arabic music and more, Vancouver musician has brought us many amazing projects over the years, including East Van Strings and Peregrine Falls, while also touring extensively as part of singer/songwriter Dan Mangan’s band. But it was his recent solo debut album, China Cloud, which landed him the Best Instrumental trophy at the 2019 Juno Awards.

He’s currently on the road with his New-York based Quartet, which includes Russ Lossing (piano), Oscar Noriega (alto sax/clarinet), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums), as heard on the album Inroads, released in 2017 on Songlines. We’re looking forward to hearing what they have in store for us, as Gordon explores his Italian heritage this Friday (June 21) as part of our “Solstizio” party at 918 Bathurst. He and Jonny Dovercourt traded encrypted messages to get us all up to speed.

Tell us a bit about you started playing music, or if that a bit too “please write your autobiography,” how you got involved with the creative jazz scene in Vancouver?

I started music at age seven on the piano and got into guitar at nine ‘cause my brother played… I really got into improvising right away… blues, rock, then jazz…  I got into the Vancouver scene around the beginning of University and then began writing my own music and more experimental sounds around ‘97 after a Banff jazz workshop. I got to play in a duo with Kenny Wheeler and that was pretty amazing for me… then a lot of straight jazz gigs ‘till I was making a living playing and then realized I wasn’t doing my own music anymore and I needed to make a change. That’s when I really started playing 1067, the underground improv club in Vancouver which ran for about 10 years, around ’99 I think? And got fully immersed. Studied with Gary Peacock and started spending time in NYC… It’s really been full-on since then… with a few years putting it on the backburner a bit while touring pretty regularly with Dan Mangan.

What’s it like having two main instruments? Is there a decision process in terms of choosing which to write or play on, or is it more intuitive?

It’s mostly ensemble-based now. It was more of a decision before, but now there are groups dedicated to the oud and the others are more guitar-focused with a couple tunes written with the oud in mind.

How did you hook up with your New York quartet, and what’s it like managing a cross-continental collaboration?

About five years ago, I kind of went in a new direction and started working with more New York musicians, just ‘cause I was really excited about what people were doing there. I also started studying a bit with Tim Berne. I had written a bunch of new music while on tour with Mangan in Europe centred around the piano and put together this Quartet. It makes the music more condensed and all-consuming but for shorter periods. These guys all learn and read at incredible speeds, so it’s pretty easy. We get together and the music is already happening and then four days in, it’s ready to record. The scene in Vancouver is incredible and I will always play and be a part of that community of world-class musicians. I was born there and know how unique and special that scene is. I’ve always been trying to expand and be more inclusive, looking for new people to collaborate and create with as an addition to what is already going on.

How did it feel when you found out you won the Juno?

I was incredibly surprised. I really didn’t think that was going to happen. I put a lot into that record and it didn’t get any reviews etc. I was pretty bummed… so when it won it felt surreal and really good. As artists, we realize these things are highly subjective and continuing to create is the most important thing, but it is a tough slog with this music, as it isn’t widely accepted or understood. This was my first solo album in over 20 years making music, so getting this support is very encouraging and inspiring.

Is the work on the quartet album Inroads improvised or composed? Do you have theme in moods when you approach making a record like this?

It’s actually some of the most composed music that I make. The extended compositions are more thematic with improvised sections leading into the next written space. The new record has much longer pieces as well. They are more pan-tonal and contrapuntal. I like the development of many linear melodies creating complex harmonic systems. Each piece is developed thematically stretching over a longer arc that takes the listener through many different moods or spaces. I feel it’s more natural to continue developing as a conversation or story would as opposed to shorter repetitive themes. It kind of demands more and less from the listener in a way, ‘cause you don’t have to remember what happened before and can just enjoy the moment — but then each moment is filled with a lot of information, so you have to dig in to get the full scope of what’s going on.

What’s happening with all your other projects at the moment? Can we expect to see you and Kenton Loewen rip things up as Peregrine Falls again soon?

This band’s new album will be released September 13, but I have advanced copies for sale at this show! I also just got off the road with The Marrow and we have a new album that is currently being manufactured for an early 2020 release. My new trio Nomad with Jim Black and Matt Mitchell is going to be released in early 2020, but I also have advanced copies of that album for sale now.

I have a new vinyl with Square Peg (Shahzad Ismaily, Mat Maneri and Christian Lillinger) that will be released July 17th when I get back. I will hopefully have some of those for sale for this tour. Also being released this month on Poland’s Not Two records is a trio with Matthew Shipp and Mark Helias. I don’t have copies of this album yet. I am really happy with how that music developed and we are looking to do a lot more with that group.

I also have two solo albums in the works, one electric and one solo classical guitar and oud.

Peregrine Falls has been on hiatus for a bit, but we are looking to gear back up with a new album hopefully for early next year.

How should Wavelength audiences prepare for your set at 918 Bathurst on June 21st?

Ha, good question! I feel like open minds and ears without predetermined ideas is a great way to turn up to any concert… but the music will be extremely dynamic as we can hit pretty hard but also love delicate moments. The extremes of the range usually depends on the venue audience and sound etc. That keeps it interesting and new, so we’re excited to see what happens too!