Gord Grdina NYC Quartet, The BlueShore at CapU (Birch Building), Saturday, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. For more information on the CapU Jazz series visit capilanou.ca.
Gordon Grdina plays, or has played, in so many bands it’s hard to pick a place to start.
“There’s kind of a couple different reasons for that,” he muses, but mainly: “I’ve got a lot of different interests all over, in a lot of different fields, and lots of different musicians I want to make music with.”
But a couple things have stayed consistent for the Vancouver-born avant-garde jazz musician: his love for the guitar, and his infatuation with the oud.
During the 1990s, a decade known for alternative rock and a late period revival of Woodstock that many now wish they would-have-not, Grdina found his musical vision through classic jazz and blues music instead.
You’re not likely to find many 13 year olds who are trying their hand at guitar by taking on Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter standards at such a tender age, as was Grdina, though he says his main musical “A-ha!” moment came through the blistering sounds of Texas blues.
“I was really into Stevie Ray Vaughan when I was 11. I loved that stuff, and it was all improvised-based kind of stuff,” says Grdina. “All that music you can just find one scale and you can just play on every tune.”
His early love of improvisation was cemented through the blues, but there was still another sonic influence left to add.
That other important detail was discovered in high school, when his guitar teacher played him a Simon Shaheen album called Saltanah – featuring the slide player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
“He was like, ‘You got to check out this slide player,’ because I was playing slide blues guitar a lot and then I heard it and then when I first heard the oud there for the first time and it just blew my mind, just the sound of it,” says Grdina.
The oud, which is a type of Middle Eastern lute, became a source of inspiration and infatuation for Grdina, who was drawn to the instrument’s steep learning curve and musical possibilities.
When he entered Capilano University’s music program in 1995, his oud playing really reached a fever pitch.
“I was playing with some friends from Cap who were playing some Indian music and Persian music and it got me wanting to explore it. I got an oud and starting studying with a great Iraqi musician,” he says.
In his professional career, Grdina has taken these early experiences with blues, jazz, electric instrumentation and, naturally, the oud, to new heights, fusing jazz, improvisation, freeform music, Arabic and Persian sounds and a host of other influences into his many bands and projects, which include his trio, the duo Peregrine Falls, Haram, Sangha and The Marrow, to name just a few.
When Grdina returns to his alma mater for tomorrow’s performance, it’ll be with his New York quartet, performing pieces from their 2017 album Inroads, which mixes improvisational jazz with a heavier and darker electric sound.
And while Grdina and the rest of the quartet, rounded out by Oscar Noriega, Russ Lossing and Satoshi Takeishi, will be playing new material as well, the concert will also feature another first for the Capilano University graduate.
“I have played the theatre before,” says Grdina. “(But) this is my first show of my own there.”
On his time at CapU, Grdina says he recalls all the great musicians he met along the way.
“It was the greatest place to go – basically it opened up my whole musical world in the city because going there we had a great group of musicians in our class and that’s where we just starting gigging right away. By going there it really opened up my whole musical career,” he says.
And while he recalls his early days as a pro musician in the city playing any show he could get his hands on, he remembers playing in restaurants most of all.
“I kind of figured out early on that when you’re playing jazz in restaurants people don’t really care what you play,” he says with a laugh, before realizing. “I don’t have to sit there and play music that sucks. I could play music that I really love.”
The scene for avant-garde music has blossomed in Vancouver and Canada throughout the past several decades, according to Grdina. His accolades, which include Juno award wins and a vast array of musical collaborations and activities, are a testament to that.
It’d be a stretch to pigeonhole Grdina as simply a jazz artist, as his interests skew a little more freeform, a little more world music, and a little more improvisational.
“When you have that sense of freedom, every time you play a gig, every concert you play, can completely change your life,” he says. “I don’t think that is true of other forms of music.”