Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow

January 13, 2022

Attaboygirl Records ABG-2

Sigmar Matthiasson
Meridian Metaphor

Unexpected combo sessions from Iceland and Canada share a foreground use of specialized instruments, but more crucially project timbres atypical for the countries’ national identities. Surprising for those who think of Iceland as a dark, frigid island are the sounds from the Reykjavik-based quintet led by bassist Sigmar Matthiasson. With no obvious echoes of Nordic folklore, the eight tracks on Meridian Metaphor reflect Middle Easter and Balkan currents. That results from oud and tamboura playing by Ásgeir Ásgeirsson throughout, plus individual tracks featuring Kosovan Taulant Mehmeti’s çifteli or two-string plucked instrument or Turk Ayman Boujlida’s Carnatic styled vocals and percussion.

Less of stretch, the eight tracks on Vancouverite Gordon Grdina’s Klotski are pressurized and tough enough to belie his country’s friendly and passive reputation. That may be because the other members of his Square Peg quartet are American violist Mat Maneri. Pakistani-American bassist and Moog player Shahzad Ismaily and German drummer Christian Lillinger. Oddly enough while Grdina plays oud as well as guitar here, the Middle Eastern inflections he exhibits elsewhere are missing.

While Matthiasson’s compositions certainly banishes the cliché of dour Iceland, too often the tracks are a little too buoyant and modest. Although emphatic bass thumps, Matthías Hemstock’s drum pats and pops and Ingi Bjarni Skúlason’s concentrated piano comping keep the rhythm moving forward, the themes are often almost Caribbean-like excessively sunny. This is especially obvious since the thematic lead invariably features the arching and squirming tones of Haukur Grönda’s clarinet. That said, when the output is relaxed, sounds are more notable. This occurs on “East River”, where string and percussions textures are more forceful, the bassist’s notes slide supplely up and down, and reed work includes stop-start flutters. As well “Nu Rock” contrasts processional piano comping with string drones as Grönda squeaks and slurs a contrapuntal line. Maintaining the flow, the tune also makes room for below-the-bridge bow strokes. With Mehmeti’s mandolin-like picking upfront on the concluding “Mehmetaphor” , clarinet peeps and piano tinkles means it highlights the session’s frailties as much as its flow.

More resilient and mercurial than the other disc, the ebb and flow of Klotski reflects its paradigm as a unit whose shifts and slides depend on aleatoric input from each player. That means that not only are themes often rugged or pointillistic, but taking advantage of each player’s multiple inputs parallel expositions are heard that manage to evolve without ever crossing. Ismaily’s multi-tasking is an asset here. He can create an affiliated bass line with the targeted heft of a James Jamerson and at the same time or elsewhere provide synthesizer pulses that double others’ timbres or create a harmonic bed for them. More relaxed than usual Lillinger’s ruffs and rolls outline the beat rather than lever it higher. As well his cymbal claps or drum patterning add color without disruption.

Ass the chief soloists Grdina and Maneri take advantage of the tropes that can be created by their string sets. Circling viola stops and pulls are frequently evoked for contrapuntal duets. Stropped or sawing extensions also add to the fiddler’s skill in extending rhythmic pressure. But at the same time, formalist sweetness adds melodic emotionalism at points. For his part the guitarist moves from finger-picking lightness to thick augmented twangs when needed. He does both in subsequent sequences. “Bacchic Barge” demonstrates his fluid finger-picking so that he seems to be playing an acoustic Spanish guitar, whereas “Sulfur City” stretches flanges to hammering repeated Rock-like riffs. This is his response to snickering Moog drones, barbed viola spiccato and cymbal crashes. Still although some tracks fragment during solo spots, basic harmonies and linear movement is preserved. As the narrative emphasizes firm or fragile inferences, the logic of allowing chance to direct improvisations is made clear. So is that this really happens because of sophisticated musicianship from all.

That’s also why the concluding “Joy Ride” lives up to its title. With overlaid harmonics a warm ending is constructed out of swaying guitar frails, hoedown-like sweeps from the viola and repasted patterning from the bassist and drummer.

Matthiasson has the compositional smarts to create notable music, but he should take on more strength from his Viking ancestors to toughen his performances. Meanwhile Grdina has proven that in the right hands in-the-moment improvisation can be maintained to produce jubilant surprises. But with the many ensembles with which Square Peg members are involved, how often this band can be assembled is an open question.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Meridian: 1. Don 2. Berlin Bacalhau 3. Fordómalausir tímar 4. East River 5. Karthago 6. Nu Rock 7. Stinningskaldi 8. Mehmetaphor

Personnel: Meridian: Haukur Gröndal (clarinet); Ingi Bjarni Skúlason (piano); Ásgeir Ásgeirsson (oud and tamboura); Taulant Mehmeti^ (çifteli); Sigmar Matthiasson (bass); Matthías Hemstock (drums) and Ayman Boujlida* (konnakol and percussion)

Track Listing: Klotski:1. Impending Discomfort 2, Escherian 3. Bacchic Barge 4. Sulfur City 5. Kaleidoscope 6. Microbian Theory 7. Sore Spot 8. Joy Ride

Personnel: Klotski: Mat Maneri (viola); Gordon Grdina (guitar and oud); Shahzad Ismaily (bass and Moog synthesizer) and Christian Lillinger (drums)