Another Edgy, Highly Improvised Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina
Gordon Grdina is the rare jazz guitarist who plays a lot of notes, yet manages to find a way not to waste them. His music has always been more about mood and narrative than merely a display of gritty chops on guitar and oud, both of which are scary-good. Since the late teens, he’s been on a wild creative tear, which does not seem to have been adversely affected by the lockdown. He got a solo album out of it, and now also has a richly textured, edgily conversational new quartet record, Klotski, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.
Grdina calls the band Square Peg. Violist Mat Maneri and bassist Shahzad Ismaily play with their typical purpose, choosing their spots. Christian Lillinger is just as much colorist as timekeeper behind the drum kit. The album is a highly improvisational uninterrupted suite of variations on cell-based melodies. The camaraderie is high spirited, matched by a meticulous focus: jazz improvisation is seldom this outright tuneful.
Resolutely unresolved viola wafts around over Lillinger’s rustles on his hardware to introduce the album’s opening number, Impending Discomfort. Then Grdina’s guitar angles in, sparely. Maneri wryly responds in kind to Grdina’s slide licks; a steady, brisk stroll develops, Ismaily playing suspenseful, terse polyrhythms. The fireplace tableau that results pits Maneri’s yellow flames over Grdina’s deep-ember sputter.
Grdina calls the next part Escherian, Maneri in contrast to Lillinger’s black reflecting pool, Grdina running loops beneath Ismaily’s smoky ambience. The Halloweenish drollery the quartet link arms and eventually stroll into is irresistibly funny, especially when you hear where they go with it. A little obvious, maybe, but the fun these guys are having is visceral.
Maneri and Grdina have additional fun exchanging volume knob-style washes over Lillinger’s flutters and Ismaily’s wise, steady, sparse pulse in Bacchic Barge, before the bandleader takes centerstage with a solo that’s more Juno on the prowl than Bacchus falling off the boat. His matter-of-fact contentedness as he switches to oud contrasts with the unexpected wrath Maneri and Ismaily pull from the shadows.
Pitchblende bass, bucolic viola, scrambling oud and rises and falls from the drums permeate Sulfur City, up to a snarling march that Ismaily eventually colors with blippy, harmonium-like synth, finally luring Grdina into the brambles.
The quartet work sagaciously expansive chords out of a simple, well-used blues riff as they move methodically through Kaleidoscope, Maneri’s giddyup phrases and shivery harmonics balanced by a contiguous attack that his bandmates rise and pull away from. A bit of a sepulchral surprise sets up the lively, bubbling segue into Microbian Theory, once again developing out of a familiar minor-key blues lick. The descent into plaintive washes afterward might be the album’s most offhandedly gripping interlude.
Murk and vampy acidity interchange in Sore Spot, a catchy, tolling metal anthem in spiky disguise. Lillinger fuels the suite’s coda, Joy Ride, with a tricky quasi-Balkan circle dance groove, Ismaily’s hypnotic riffage anchoring the bandleader’s increasingly volatile, blues-infused meteor shower. It ends unresolved.