Gordon Grdina Septet — Resist (Irabagast, 2020)
The centerpiece of Resist is the 23-minute title suite, where avant-jazz guitarist Gordon Grdina turns classical composer, armed with a quartet of strings and the saxophone of Jon Irabagon. When this album came out in April, I felt Grdina had succeeded in creating something meaningful — but now, amid the George Floyd protests, it feels even bigger.
The strings are the key. They open “Resist” with somber persistence — the sound of gradual, grinding progress. The powerful coda, though, is where Grdina earns his stripes — sweeping, cinematic music suggesting the weariness of battles hard won and new fights yet to come (that’s what I hear in Irabagon’s frenzied sax solo). To me, it’s the sound of steadfast pride and grim realism — or maybe it’s just a reflection of how I felt as the protests gained momentum.
The heavy mood in “Resist” comes partly from an emphasis on mid/low registers. Instead of a traditional string quartet, Grdina uses a violin-viola-cello-bass lineup (and incidentally, it’s Evyind Kang on viola and Peggy Lee, a creative music veteran from Grdina’s native Vancouver, on cello). The suite does have its playful moments, including a free-improv section in the middle, but it ends with a reflective moment of very low arco bass, a little bit comforting, a little bit ominous.
Resist is an ambitious departure, but it also draws on Grdina’s usual context of creative jazz. His recent work includes a couple of all-star pickup trios — one with Mark Helias and Matthew Shipp (bass and piano) and the Nomad Trio with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black (piano and drums). He’s also shown off his oud playing over the years, especially on a pair of albums by his band The Marrow.
The rest of the album Resist draws from those materials. “Resist the Middle” revels in the bustle of free improv, including Grdina on white-noise electric guitar, then coalesces around heavy strings and other-worldly voices by Irabagon on sopranino sax. “Ever Onward” is another piece featuring some weighty strings, but it also sets Grdina’s oud, a lonely frontier voice, in some spiraling duet work with Jesse Zubot on violin.
“Varscona” is the album’s touch of lightness. Irabagon leads a joyous trio jam with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen, then it all shifts into a free-improv attack with the rest of the band. The song ends with a surprisingly silly bit of vaudeville — which, again, feels prescient, because we could all use a little levity right now.