Gordon Grdina was interviewed in the Songlines office on June 12, 2006 and subsequently by email and phone.
Tony Reif: Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get interested in music in the first place?
Gordon Grdina: I started playing the piano when I was 7 because my mom noticed that I liked to play rhythmically on pots and pans, things like that. And since she was a piano player herself she thought that that would be the best instrument to start on. The lessons were okay at the beginning but I didn’t stick to it all that much, she had to make me practice every morning. I ended up playing piano for about 6 years, but when I was 9 my brother started playing guitar and I thought he was cool so I started playing guitar. She never had to ask me to practice guitar, I just played all the time.
TR: So what were you playing on guitar?
GG: Classic rock, and stuff from the 80s, and pretty soon I got into the blues. I started improvising over blues tunes and that’s when things really took off. I got into Albert King and BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I would put on their CDs and play along with them for hours and hours. Then when was around 11 or 12 I started noticing songs they were playing that I couldn’t quite improvise over. So I asked my teacher at the time about it and he started to get me interested in jazz, ‘cause that’s where most of those tunes were coming from – “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You,” “Chitlins Con Carne,” etc. Then I started listening to Miles Davis. The first two jazz records I got were Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. I started playing over modal tunes such as “Freddie the Freeloader” and “So What.” Then my teacher started bringing me CDs every week of different things. That’s when the real change started happening. He would bring anything. I got a lot of Indian records from him, some Arabic stuff, that’s when I first heard the oud (I was 13).
TR: Were you part of any bands at this age?
GG: Yeah, I usually ended up playing in either duos or trios because there weren’t a lot of musicians around, my school (Notre Dame, a little Catholic school) didn’t have a band program. I would play with guitar players too, like my teacher and his friends. I’ve always really liked playing in smaller groups, ‘cause you’re able to instantly react to people and play off of what they played, as opposed to having a part to play.
Anyway, since I couldn’t jam with people that much, I spent a lot of time in high school working on theory and technique, on my own and from books. I had most of the jazz harmony info from books and from my teacher. I kept listening to a lot of different kinds of music, the common thread being improvising. I also studied some classical music during this time. After high school I went to Capilano College, which is where I wanted to go, that’s where I started playing with other students and got my first gigs. The first gig I ever did, in 1995, was a 12-hour gig – we actually played 45 minutes with a 15-minute break for 12 hours, it was a duo with bass player Jeremy Holmes (he’s in the collective Loose Acoustic). It was at a coffee shop in Abbotsford. Since then I’ve been playing gigs regularly in and around Vancouver.
TR: Who were your musical heroes at this point?
GG: From about 13 on Keith Jarrett was a real hero, I listened to his trio all the time, and both his quartets from the 70s, and Miles. Guitar players were the regular guys: Frisell, Metheny, Scofield and Abercrombie.
TR: Were you familiar with people like Sonny Sharrock or Derek Bailey?
GG: No, the first free players I listened to were Keith, Ornette, and the Coltrane-Don Cherry record. About midway through college I started listening to Paul Bley.
TR: So pianists were as big an influence on you as guitarists?
GG: I’d say moreso. There’s something about the different voices working at once and contrapuntal phrasing that grabbed me right away.
TR: Do you see this as a limitation for guitarists, and if so how do you try to incorporate a pianistic approach to music on the guitar?
GG: For me it was breaking down the standard grips that guitar players have and getting inside the chords to really hear lines that imply the harmony, without having to play the whole chord. So that was a technical thing, being able to do that, and doing it in two ways: one with just a single line, and then being able to improvise and comp for yourself by playing a counter line as opposed to playing a grip.
TR: For the non-guitarists among us, could you explain what a grip is?
GG: It’s a standard chord voicing that all jazz guitarists would know. Not that that’s bad thing, I do that too. There’s just something very specific that I was looking for in music, which I think came from listening to piano players.
TR: So we’re in mid-college, are you thinking about a career in music and if so what ideas did you have at that point?
GG: I already knew that I wanted to have a career in music when I was 13. In college I was trying to make sure I could make a living playing, so I made sure that I could play standards gigs that would make me money but where I could still be improvising and playing jazz.
TR: Vancouver isn’t a very big town when it comes to earning a living playing jazz. You must have been working on/playing other types of music too?
GG: Not really, I was pretty naïve. That’s all I wanted to play. It wasn’t till later on in college that I got offered gigs that weren’t jazz that paid well, and that’s when I had to draw on some of the rock music from when I was younger.
TR: Who were some of your other friends and playing partners at Cap?
GG: Musicians going to Cap were drummer Bernie Arai, saxophonist Alvin Cornista, bassists Jeremy Holmes and Paul Rushka, and percussionists Liam MacDonald and Neil Dhillon (he and I had a band he was playing tabla in). But I was also playing with bassist Simon Fisk, and with drummer Julian McDonough, who I met at Western Washington U. where I was studying with Chuck Israels for a year.
TR: So you graduated with a music degree, what happened next?
GG: After that I was teaching guitar privately and playing music, earning my living about equally from the two. I’d been writing music the whole time I was at Cap and putting together different bands to play it, but I wasn’t focusing on them as projects, they were also gigging bands but I didn’t push any of them, I was mostly making a living as a sideman playing jazz standards. Once out of Cap I started to focus on Loose Acoustic, sort of an improvising groove trio with Liam and Jeremy, which mixes jazz, rock and funk. I was also playing in Space and Time, that collective with Neil that was playing a lot of world music. And I had a quartet (Simon Fisk, Bernie Arai and Alvin Cornista) which just played my own pieces. But I was finding it really difficult to balance these three very different bands, so I ended up just focusing on Loose Acoustic when I got out of college because I couldn’t get my head around the different aesthetics of the different groups. Then I started to study with Gary Peacock.
TR: How did that come about?
GG: I drove down to San Francisco with two friends, straight down to watch a show by the Jarrett trio, and we drove right back after the show. This was one of the first shows Keith did after being sick, it would have been in fall of 2000. We weren’t sure if he’d ever play again so that’s why we went down. After the show I waited by the stage door in order to talk to Gary because my friend Simon Fisk had studied with him and he’d told me about a book that Gary said is the closest to how he thinks about music: Sound and Symbol by Victor Zuckerkandl. And I’d read the book and it made lot of sense to me – his idea of what music is when you hear it, what makes music different from a cat running across a piano…and the way he looks at ear training as a vehicle for expanding possibilities through improvisation as opposed to closing them off. Instead of using the ear as a naming tool for things you hear, teaching how to hear things as “expanded,” looking at a bunch of different possibilities that would fit in a particular context. So I told Gary I’d read that book and we chatted for about 20 minutes on the street about it and then I asked him if I could come see him and get some lessons, he said sure. I wrote him a letter after that with a bunch of concerns I had about music, whether I was understanding the book properly, whether I was understanding harmony properly. He phoned me back and we talked about those concerns for an hour or so, we had a few lessons that took place over the phone. I saved up money to go to NY and get a lesson. That time he was in NYC playing with Paul Bley and Paul Motian. I’d see him every 3 or 4 months, going to his house in upstate NY, and if he was in Seattle I’d see him there too.
TR: So what were you finding out about music and your music from these meetings?
GG: How to let the music develop naturally, growing of its own accord. Everything I was working on was how to get me to more quickly realize what I was hearing. Like if you’re hearing a song playing in your head (most musicians will hear themselves improvising in their head, say you’re walking down the street), being able to take that and play that. But at the beginning it’s often garbled and not clear exactly what it is you’re hearing. I needed to work on the skills to be able to make that process work more clearly, efficiently…working on being able to intellectualize what I was hearing, and then also knowing the instrument well enough to be able to play it instantaneously.
TR: That would seem to be the aim of an improvising musician, but I imagine it’s a long road to develop the facility and the analytic side of it.
GG: Yes, that is the goal, but it isn’t a common way to teach improvisation, because that isn’t what academics talk about. They talk about knowledge, things that you can use that are all intellectual, ideas…they don’t talk about what you’re hearing and being able to have a connection where you can hear it and have it played through your instrument without at the time having an intellectual understanding of it, or even being conscious of what it is you’re playing in any analytic sense. Where music comes from is not from your head, not from ideas, but straight from what you’re hearing, with all its rhythmic/harmonic/melodic implications. That’s how music changes in time, it doesn’t come out of an idea.
TR: So if you’re not consciously planning out your next moves, let’s say during a solo or a collective improvisation, how do you “edit” your playing as you play – is there no role for the evaluative mind while you’re actually creating, and if not, how do you know if a solo is going well?
GG: No, there isn’t any place for it. I’m talking about the moment of creation, and at that moment there can’t be an evaluation or any concept of what you’re playing. This doesn’t mean you’re not thinking – it’s a different kind of thinking where you’re so involved in what you’re doing that your whole body is doing the thinking. So you can’t be thinking about whether what you’re playing is any good, you just have to let it come out. And where you get the editing process is by following the music that you’re hearing. In that sense, it’s almost like you’re not even playing it, you’re getting as much of it out through your instrument as you can…that could be very spare for someone like Miles, or it could be sheets of sound for Coltrane. This is just the process of how it comes out, it doesn’t mean what you’re playing is any good. But if this is happening, you’re having spontaneous improvisation.
TR: And you know when this is happening. What do you do if things aren’t flowing?
GG: Nothing…anything you try is going to take you away from being there. This doesn’t mean that ideas and thought and practice don’t have any bearing, they’re extremely important, but having this knowledge and the concept of how to spontaneously improvise allows all that practice and those ideas to really come to fruition. The best analogy I’ve heard is with food: before you eat a meal you think a lot and do a lot of preparation as to how it tastes, making sure that it has a lot of nutrients, but when you’re eating it you may be conscious of chewing but usually not, and then you swallow it. Once you’ve swallowed it you’re not conscious of how your body’s breaking down those materials into the energies and nutrients that your body needs – your body just does that naturally. That’s how I think of practicing and ideas. If you slowed down your improvisations to the point that you could be conscious of everything you’re doing, you’d only ever be able to play what you can think of. But if you let them develop on their own, anything is possible, or at least you can surprise yourself.
TR: So as your lessons with Gary continued, what direction was your music taking, how were you building on that foundation as a player and composer?
GG: I was playing and practicing a lot and was starting to really understand my musical experiences. I started delving into different projects again instead of just focusing on one group. I found I had an ability to really focus in on each project when I was doing it and was able to enjoy playing in different aesthetic situations.
TR: You started a couple new bands around this time?
GG: Yes, the Grdina trio, with Simon Fisk and clarinetist James Dandefer, playing all my own tunes which we freely improvised on rather than following the forms. I also started playing the oud in 2002, and started the band Sangha, with Neil Dhillon and the tar player Hidayat Honari, who had also studied jazz guitar at Cap when I was there.
TR: How did you teach yourself the oud? You’d been interested in Arabic and Persian music for a long time but never any had any formal training?
GG: I got a lot of information off the internet, on tuning and maqams etc.. that helped my understanding what I was listening to, and then started studying with Serwan Yamolky, an Iraqi oud player living in Vancouver. I started learning Iraqi folk tunes and Arabic classical music. And Sangha grew out of this.
TR: When did your group Box Cutter get started?
GG: James left town and François Houle started to play with my trio. We played for about a year like that, and I wrote more pieces for the band and could hear a drummer (more of the pieces were in time). I got to play with Kenton Loewen, who I had an instant rapport with. At that point the band became a quartet.
TR: Why call it Box Cutter?
GG: The concept of the band became the breaking down of different pre-conceived notions about music and aesthetics – the combination of different styles, such as punk and jazz, groove music and free time music, playing changes or forms and freeform improvisation. The group was about not having to fit into any of these boxes and to be as inclusive as possible.
TR: But you were also playing informally with other “creative” musicians in Vancouver?
GG: Yeah, I made a conscious break in about 2002 where I shifted my focus into playing creative music from just trying to make a living. I’d realized that I was hustling all this work in the city in order to live, so that I could play more of the music that I wanted to, but that I was spending way too much time hustling gigs I didn’t even really want to do. And I wasn’t growing musically from it.
TR: So who are some of the local musicians who you’ve developed a particular rapport with?
GG: Dylan van der Schyff, François, Jesse Zubot, Peggy Lee, Coat Cooke, and Eyvind Kang who has guested with Sangha a number of times and who I’ve played free improv with (I also have a string quartet, the East Van Strings, that he’s a member of).
TR: What’s the instrumentation?
GG: Violin, viola, cello and guitar/oud.
TR: To what extent is this group also a context for improvisation?
GG: As much as it is for composition.
TR: So to get back to your lessons with Gary, which went on for five years, how did things work out in the end?
GG: When we started it was over the phone, we did a lot of talking about music. When we got together we would talk for about half the lesson and then play for the other half. I’d usually play for a bit and he’s stop me and try and get some concept across that he wasn’t hearing when we were playing – it could have been something like hearing the harmony in the piece, the phrasing I was playing, or where the music was coming from as I played. Then we’d usually stop and discuss the issue for a while. Sometimes it was something I could get right away, but more often than not it was something I needed to go and work on on my own. The last time I saw him, in the spring of 2005, we started to play and didn’t stop. We played Wayne Shorter tunes, standards, my tunes. Something did come up that we stopped for, he wrote down something on a piece of paper, we took a break, I wrote down the next phrase on the paper, and when he saw it he said “Yeah, exactly.” And then we played some more. So when I saw him the following day I asked him if he would be into recording a CD with me. He said yes.
TR: When did Paul Motian become involved in the project?
GG: Gary and I talked about what we should do and I immediately wanted to have Paul play in the trio because he’s my favourite drummer, and Gary and Paul have played on so many records together, they have an amazing connection. I called Paul and asked him if he’d be into doing the record and he said yes.
TR: You wrote some new pieces for this particular group, were there any new directions you wanted to take your music given these great players?
GG: The main thing I wanted to do was bring together the oud and the guitar because I could hear the oud working so well with these two musicians, and there’s something in the way they improvise which reminds me of the Arabic taqasim [free time improvisational introduction to the melodic material of the piece]. And so much of everything I’d learned and heard musically comes from these two guys that I wanted to bring all those things together.
TR: How did the sessions go for you, any surprises?
GG: The things I thought were going to be easy were more difficult and vice versa. I was worried about the improvisation and particularly the free playing, and it was easy, anything I played they were right there. I’d written some tunes that I thought would be quick ones to go through to feel comfortable, that were more standard in form, and it seemed harder to make them come alive.
TR: I noticed Gary was offering suggestions at certain points…
GG: Yeah, though he didn’t need to for the free pieces. Some of those points helped, but in the end they weren’t the pieces that really did it for me.
TR: But you’re happy with the record.
GG: Extremely. All the things I wanted to have come out of it did come out of it. Listening back to a tune and having Paul dig what I was playing was fantastic. Some of the more difficult parts where we were having difficulty figuring out the oud pieces, I’m glad that we stuck it out because what I was hearing was there, it just needed some time to let everyone get comfortable with what they were playing.
TR: You think of the oud as a “jazz” instrument the way that, say, Yusef Lateef thought of the oboe for example, as another whole tradition that can be worked into a context of improvisation separate from itself?
GG: Yeah, because my concept of jazz has very little to do with a style or a particular sound, more to do with a freedom and a way of playing.
TR: Do you find the oud is very amenable to linear improvisation well beyond its usual melodic forms in Arabic music?
GG: I do, but in using the oud in a different context I’m not trying to say that there’s anything missing in Arabic music, it is complete. I’m just coming at the instrument from a different perspective, so the oud is going to end up in situations that may be new. I try not to differentiate too much between what should or shouldn’t be played on the oud. I just go by what I hear. If I hear oud I’ll play it, and if I hear guitar I’ll play that. As I play the oud more I start to hear it in different contexts that I hadn’t thought of before so this too is an organic process.
TR: You’ve also got a group with Liam, Jeremy and Jesse Zubot called Maqam, that throws the oud and Iraqi folk music into a kind of post-modern melting pot with almost-free improv, whereas Sangha is more a more traditional-sounding group (although alternating and mixing Arabic, Persian and Indian forms). Have you been inspired by oud players such as Anouar Brahem and Rabih Abou-Khalil and by Kayhan Kalhor’s group Ghazal? What are you trying to do that they haven’t done?
GG: Well I would say my biggest influences on the oud would be Simon Shaheen and Hamza El Din, but Anouar Brahem and Rabih Abou-Khalil have also been an influence. I find all of those players immensely inspiring as they are all virtuosos. I’m not trying to do anything different than what they have done, but I think I’m coming at the instrument from a perspective of group interaction and group improvisation that is a little different than how someone who solely comes from a traditional Arabic music background might approach it. I’ve tried to make the oud part of my complete musical experience, so that I can take it with me on any musical exploration without any preconceived idea about its musical role. I just use it when I hear it. Maqam and Sangha’s group interaction or group improvisation, and by that I mean that each musician is free to move an improvisation in whatever direction they hear, has dictated how those groups’ sounds are so drastically different. Just by putting those musicians together I new how the oud was going to need to function – all I had to do was be open and able to move in those directions… which is where my perspective comes from, one of open acceptance of sound and form.
TR: You strike me as an ambitious musician and as someone who knows where they want to go with their music. What are your aims at this point?
GG: I’d like to play and tour as much as possible. Musically I’m pretty happy with the different ensembles I’m playing in and I’m going to continue to write for all of them and get the music heard. Since Paul doesn’t tour anymore I’m going to hit the road with different trio configurations, playing this music as much as possible as well.
TR: You’ll be playing with Gary and Dylan on June 27th during our jazz festival. What do you have planned for that gig?
GG: Well I’m never sure exactly what we’ll do because that will depend on what the instruments sound like in the hall and the vibe of the night etc., but I’m planning on playing some of the tunes from the CD as well as some off-the-cuff improvisations.
TR: Could you say something about the pieces included on Think Like the Waves?
GG: The title “Yellow Spot into the Sun” is a Pablo Picasso quote. He said that anyone can paint a yellow spot for the sun but it takes an artist to turn a yellow spot into the sun. I wrote the tune specifically for this record. I could hear the melody being sung, which is rare for me as I’m horrible at writing lyrics, but I could almost hear some with this tune. I love the way it turned out, with Paul changing the time for Gary’s improv, which was completely improvised, and like he said he probably couldn’t do it again if he tried. That unflinching going for what you’re hearing was really evident on this take and is what made me choose it in the end. “Different Places” is a piece that developed over a long period of time. Originally when I wrote it for it for the Grdina Trio with François Houle it had a lot more written material, but I think it lacked a sense of logical development that it now has in this shorter version. It’s more direct and concise now and therefore lends itself to improvisation much more clearly.“Platform” is a piece that went through a similar transformation as at one point it was a full-on fugue! Again I’ve found that the simpler and clearer the composition can be the more room the improviser has to develop it. “Renunciation” was also written for this recording, and we ended up not improvising on the vamp, as would be typical with a piece of this sort, but instead improvising a collective taqasim.“Morning Moon” was written for my group Sangha. Here we play the piece fairly concisely and leave the improv section open for group improvisation instead of improvising on the vamp. I think this switch made a lot of sense for musicians as interactive and unique as Paul and Gary.“Ginger Root” was written while I was waiting to see my chiropractor. It’s a combination of two different vibes that I could hear Paul playing well between. He though wanted Gary and me to play it as a duo, though after hearing both versions he preferred the one as a trio. I wanted to put both versions on the record, but in the end settled on the duo as I felt it worked better for the overall flow of the CD. I do plan on putting the trio version on my website.“100 Years” was named after the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was reading the book at the time I wrote the piece and was completely blown away with Marquez’s creation of a whole new style of writing. He was definitely not fitting into any preconceived idea of how to write, and through his unique imagination created a whole new world were people could fly on magic carpets and it was no big deal. I love Gary and Paul’s unique sense of groove, and I started writing the piece from there. The rest of the tune wrote itself very quickly.“Distant” is a piece originally written for Box Cutter. For this recording we changed the harmony a little bit so that it had more of a pedal point through the first section and sped it up a little. It’s great to hear how different a piece can sound with different musicians playing it, and this piece definitely developed a unique vibe on this recording.“Combustion” is a piece that wrote itself. After I heard the first phrase the rest of the piece followed, the bridge seemed obvious and I couldn’t have written it any differently. It is a fairly simple tune coming out of the jazz tradition that just quietly points in a more modern direction. At first I thought it was out of place on the record, but now I think of it as a resting place between some of the more abstract improvisations.
“Think like the Waves” comes out of some of the Armenian folk music that I’d been playing in Vancouver. It’s the most traditional sounding of all of the oud pieces, but with the improvisation in free time the interaction points to a more modern period, although no one really knows how these pieces were played in ancient times. In general I wanted the pieces on the record to be full statements in themselves that we as improvisers could comment on but not necessarily have to stay faithful to.
“Cobble Hill” was partially written in the chiropractor’s office as well. It is heavily influenced by Paul’s writing for his trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. The opening melody came quickly but the last section took some flushing out.
“Albert the Monk” was written for both this trio and Box Cutter. In Box Cutter the first section is played underneath a drum improvisation at about half this tempo before it goes into a free section and then a completely different ending section. Here the piece is fully developed as a complete statement at about a medium tempo. I kind of think of this piece as if Thelonious Monk had written the changes for an Albert King riff.
“String Quartet #6” comes from the East Van Strings, where all of the pieces started with a short melodic phrase that I then developed into a much larger piece for the whole quartet. This short melodic phrase or impetus is used here as a statement to begin an improvisation. Part of the phrase was something that my wife was singing one morning when she woke me up.
“Strathcona” was written for Gary and me to play as a duo. The bass melodic figures come from the birds that I’ve heard all of my life in springtime in Vancouver. You know it’s spring when you hear this phrase. Strathcona is the neighbourhood I live in and where I was listening to the birds that started me writing this piece. It came out very simply with just two voices. I’ve always found a simple melody to be extremely compelling if it is treated properly.
TR: Yes, there’s something about many of your melodies that resonates on an emotional level. How do you get to that?
GG: Thank you. Usually I have some bit of the melody that I can hear, and then I listen for what’s supposed to happen after that. I’m very careful to make sure that I don’t construct something to happen after that or to think about what I want to have happen, and just wait to see what the music is saying should happen – waiting for a response to the first part of the phrase, perhaps the repetition of it or something that answers it.
TR: In general I hear a lot of the jazz developments of the mid-60s to mid-70s informing this record. You’ve mentioned Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, and I think I can hear Ornette in there as well. Was there something going on in the music of that time that particularly draws you or that provides models for what you want to do? Perhaps some elements of harmony, and the sliding between metre and pulse…?
GG: I think so, there’s just something in that music that I gravitate towards, something about its simplicity and complexity all at the same time. Keith always sounds so fluid, and fluidity is what I hear in Ornette’s writing and playing as well and in a lot of that music. It’s not trying to be clever or trying to be complex. If it is complex that comes out of the need to express the melody more richly. In their music and improvisation, tonality is being stretched to its furthest point while still being tonal. Music like that, and by classical composers too like Berg, Webern and Bartok, is what I’ve been particularly interested in, where it hasn’t quite gone to 12-tone yet, sort of the climax of tonality. Aesthetically there’s not a huge connection between Bartok and Keith Jarrett’s music of that time, but it is informed by that, and Ornette’s too.
So when I’m composing I just listen to what I hear, and when I hear it it’s all there, the hard part is to decipher it to write it down. I start with the melody and then figure out what chords I’m hearing under that, whether it changes tonality in the middle etc. Being influenced by those artists and composers has been pretty instinctual, based around hearing rather than conceptualizing. In listening to something like a Bartok quartet it’s easy to get lost in the music because it’s so dense, and you can get stuck in figuring out the building blocks and miss the whole statement that the music is making. The East Van Strings has been a particular outlet for my interest in those composers.