Gordon Grdina: The Artist as Label Head

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“I want to be able to get things out quicker, where what I’m releasing is closer to what I’m actually working on,” Grdina said.

(Photo: Genevieve Monroe)

Vancouver-born guitarist Gordon Grdina remembers the moment, at age 13, that he first heard the sound of the Middle Eastern oud, the centuries-old forerunner of the European lute.

“My guitar teacher played me a record (Saltanah, on Water Lily Acoustics),” he recalled. “I was playing a lot of blues at the time and a little bit of slide, and he thought I’d be interested in the Indian slide guitar player Vishna Mohan Bhatt. But when I heard Simon Shaheen playing the oud on that album, it blew my mind. I loved the sound of it, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was being made. So I started listening to master oud players like Simon and Hamza El Din. Rabih Abou-Khalil was a big influence, too, in terms of doing a more hybrid thing with the instrument. But I wanted to be respectful of the tradition and learn as much as I could, and eventually come up with new ideas to create something that’s more honest for my own expression.”

Grdina has done precisely that. As an emissary of Iraqi and Arabic style oud playing, he has continued to put his stamp on the 11-stringed instrument since the release of his first recording as a leader, 2006’s Think Like Waves, with the venerated rhythm tandem of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. He made further inroads on 2008’s …If Accident Will and followed with a trio of introspective solo classical guitar/oud projects with 2018’s JUNO Award-winning China Cloud, 2020’s Prior Street and 2021’s Pendulum. His mission continues with two stirring releases on his new label Attaboygirl Records — Night’s Quietest Hour and Oddly Enough: The Music Of Tim Berne.

Since forming Attaboygirl last year with photographer and partner Genevieve Monro, Grdina has been on a roll. The label was launched in October 2021 with the simultaneous releases of the solo Pendulum and the debut of his Square Peg quartet with viola ace Mat Maneri, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Christian Lillinger on Klotski. Night’s Quietest Hour, released in February, is a collection of traditional Iraqi and Arabic tunes performed with Grdina’s folk music ensemble Haram. It features guest guitarist Marc Ribot’s distortion-laced skronking over the tightly knit ensemble on intricate numbers such as the traditional Turkish tune “Longa Nahawand,” the Sudanese song “Sala Min Shaaraha” and the Syrian tune “Dulab Bayati.”

“Ribot’s been a hero of mine for a long time,” Grdina said. “He added a whole lot of energy and excitement as well as a punk-rock aesthetic to these pieces. Marc blended into the ensemble from the beginning and his presence pushed the group’s delicacy, intensity and explosive nature to new heights. The record is five songs, but in concert we did 12 different pieces from older repertoire, and he had such a great time [that] he played on everything with us.”

The compelling solo project Oddly Enough, also released in February, finds Grdina exploring Berne’s music on acoustic guitar, oud and a customized electric guitar fitted with MIDI pickups.

“Lost In Redding,” for instance, has him triggering an acoustic bass sample along with tabla, piano, Fender Rhodes and various electronic sounds, all in real time with no overdubs. As he said about tackling Berne’s work, “The compositions are incredibly complex, personal and harmonically unique. The linear way he writes for bands like Blood Count, Science Friction and Snake Oil, I really connect with. And I wanted to get that quality in a different way on my own. I had already done a bunch of acoustic records so I wanted to try and do something electric. I wanted to use the amps in the big room and get a huge electric guitar sound there. That’s why I did this album in a studio instead of doing it at my house.”

While three songs on Oddly Enough — “Snippet,” “I Don’t Use Hair Products” and “Pliant Squids” — are strictly live solo guitar pieces, three others involve overdubs. For instance, “Trauma One” features guitar and oud navigating in unison through Berne’s knotty lines. The title track has two electric guitars (one through an octave pedal) engaged in frantic counterpoint.

Upcoming on Attaboygirl is another project called Gordon Grdina’s The Twain, featuring electric koto player Michio Yagi and drummer Tamaya Honda of the Japanese improv duo Dōjō, and singer Koichi Makigami, who doubles on theremin and cornet. Being released as a co-promotion between Attaboygirl and Black Dot, a vinyl record label from Vancouver Island, it’s part of a flood of releases the prolific guitarist-oud master has put out during the pandemic.

“There’s just a lot of stuff that I needed to get out,” he said. “I want to be able to get things out quicker, where what I’m releasing is closer to what I’m actually working on.” DB



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On Sale Now
July 2022
Sean Jones
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