This interview with Gordon Grdina was conducted by email during August-September 2017.
Tony Reif: How did this new New York-based band come about?
Gordon Grdina: The musicians on Inroads came together over a two-year process of getting more involved in the NY scene. Oscar, Russ and Satoshi are all amazing, incredibly well rounded, multi-faceted musicians with unique voices. They are also master improvisers and all around amazing technicians, but the chemistry of the band wasn’t apparent at the start. We had a lot of short rehearsals, a gig and then not seeing each other for 2 months. We did that for about a year and although there would be moments of chemistry it just wasn’t consistent. We then went on the road for a string of dates and everything changed. The band just solidified, everyone’s unique voice began to shine and the compositions started to click. It’s not easy music to grasp fully while you’re playing it, as it is very contrapuntal. Each instrument is focused on their own part and it takes a while before you hear it click with the other lines and the logic becomes apparent. Historically I’ve always been pretty loose with how the songs develop after I’ve written them, and I held on to preconceived ideas longer with these pieces than I have in the past, which I feel was a mistake. Once these guys started to change and morph the shape of the pieces that’s when the music finally sounded right. I can’t remember, I think it was Miles who said it, but there’s a line about how once you’ve picked the musicians for your band your job is done. Meaning you let people be themselves and everything will work out.
TR: This is the first time you’ve had a piano/keyboard in one of your groups. How did your composing of this music differ from previous music because of that, in terms of what the piano would add? And as the music was developed in rehearsal and performance, did Russ’s role(s) in the pieces change much from how you’d thought of them? I guess I’m asking about his particular improvising style and how that fits with your guitar and Oscar’s reeds.
GG: Dynamically I wanted this group to be centered around the piano, a little more delicate and subtle than a lot of what I’ve been doing recently. Being a guitarist I’m always envious of all the voices you can have on the piano and I wanted to delve into that complexity. The music is very contrapuntal with sections that can only be realized on the piano.
The pieces then really did shift and morph from their original conception under Russ’s beautiful sound. He really is a master and that depth and subtlety brought these pieces to their full potential. He and I share a love of Paul Bley and that is apparent in the construction of his ideas and his intensity. We also share the need to cut loose every now and again.
TR: Satoshi Takeishi’s drumming is also a departure in many ways. Of all the drummers in New York who you could have decided to work with it, what was it about Satoshi that attracted you particularly? Perhaps the fact that he’s as much a percussionist as a kit player had something to do with it?
GG: Satoshi and I clicked right from the beginning both personally and musically. He was recommended to me by Michael Bates who knows both of our playing well and thought that it would be a good match. Satoshi has studied a lot of different folk music from around the world and made them a part of his unique voice. We’ve done a lot of oud percussion duets and have a trio with violinist/violist Ljova Zhurbin. He is a very commanding drummer but is always playing in support of the music. He adds just what is necessary to move the music forward and make an impactful personal statement while leaving ample space for everyone else. I feel it’s something out of the Motian school. He is an incredibly unique musician.
TR: And Oscar? A very distinctive voice to be sure, and a good match for you in terms of extravert high energy along with a high degree of sensitivity, but again, there are many other reed players you might have thought about, and of course you’d already worked with Tony Malaby on your last New York record, No Difference.
GG: Oscar is such a soulful musician. He is able to make the most complex and intricate music feel soothing. I wanted that delicate attention to detail and soul to make this music warm. He is also able to bring the fire, which is important. The music demands delicacy and abandon, both of which Oscar has in spades.
TR: What marks this group as a departure from and/or building on your previous records (especially perhaps No Difference)?
GG: My development or direction doesn’t seem to be linear. Or if it is it’s more like spokes on a tinker toy spread out in many directions at once. I’ve always got a lot of different bands and ideas floating around at once. I once heard Ken Vandermark talk about taking a cue from modern dance in which there is no longer a front of stage and back of stage for direction but a forward and back from whatever direction the dancer is currently facing. That has always stuck with me as poignant. For me I feel like sometimes it’s a few different dancers at once. I feel like the music on this CD has really come more out of writing I was doing with Box Cutter or East Van Strings years ago than it does No Difference. I feel like I’ve been developing the line from No Difference with a new group called The Marrow with Mark Helias, Hank Roberts and Hamin Honari. That said, that’s just my point of view right now, which is probably a bit wrong, and maybe they all kind of come out of each other, as it seems more like a web of interconnected dots, or a zigzag maybe.
One thing I know for certain is that this music was a reaction to playing a lot of rock music. I like to do that, it’s fun but it isn’t at the core of what I’m really about. I felt a strong inner urge to write music that was more unexpected, that didn’t repeat itself so much and was more challenging than what I had been playing. Forms can sometimes feel like you’re being strangled and talked down to. I wanted the music to continually move, feeling free but clearly directed.
In a sense compositionally this also came out of the work I’d done with Gary Peacock years ago but in a very different way. We worked a lot on composition being a distilled idea that is the germ that sparks improvisation. I wanted to see what would happen if I composed the development of the ideas, keeping the same focused writing style, asking the same questions. I feel like it worked and got better over the course of the composing, playing and recording. I’m really happy with how this band and this music have developed.
TR: What stylistic areas are you exploring here (you’ve mentioned Webern, which suggests a connection with East Van Strings, but also Ornette and Soundgarden – can you expand on the latter?).
GG: The process of writing was similar to what I went through with East Van Strings, which was informed by listening to a lot of Webern and the second Viennese school. Ornette always being present is a given but Soundgarden came up while on the road with Dan Mangan’s rock band. When I was young I was a fan but didn’t really dig into it, as I was too interested in jazz at the time. I started listening to them again and was really excited and inspired by the energy and careful construction of ideas, intricate yet logical. I was also listening to a lot of Tim Berne and started to feel a connection between the two. So there was something between that intricacy and energy that I was really inspired by.
TR: What kinds of listeners is this record going to appeal to, do you think?
GG: This is always hard for me to answer because I feel I am maybe a hopeless optimist. I hear so many connections to so many genres in this music and from these musicians that I feel it has an extremely broad appeal. I think that fans of Soundgarden would dig this music and I’ve found that to be true. We came off the stage in Seattle and a man came up and said, “You sound a lot like my good friend Kim Thayil.” I was very flattered and really damn happy that the inspiration came through. I’ve also gotten compliments on the music from folk, jazz and classical music fans both young and old. So there are examples of it having the broad appeal I hope that it has. I feel that what it does demand is deep listening. There are moments where it is energetic and in your face, bringing the music to you, but it always goes back in, requiring the listener to come closer and bring their own experience to it.
TR: Anything else that makes this record distinctive in your mind.
GG: Over the course of the last few years I’ve started to connect some disparate directions musically. The oud and the guitar are starting to become interchangeable in a way. Obviously not entirely, but how I’m approaching each instrument is becoming more and more similar. I’m moving further away from the original Arabic sound of the oud and starting to push my own voice through its history. “Fragments” is a departure for me and is a path I would like to further develop with this band. Oud and piano in particular work so well together but are fundamentally opposed instruments. It really is like the meeting of two completely different worlds. The clash of ideologies is exciting to me.
TR: What further plans do you have for this quartet, new musical places to go?
GG: I would like to further develop the contrapuntal space opened up in “P.B.S.” as well as the delicate, maqam-influenced interplay of “Fragments”. I feel like this band is just getting started. I’ve got a short CD release tour in the works for around NYC and then the Canadian Jazz fest circuit for next year and then Europe.