The versatile Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina returns to Chicago this week for a couple of concerts, and I suspect they’ll nicely encapsulate the range delivered on recordings he’s made over the last years, where a love and investment in Arabic music has leavened and expanded his already broad jazz chops. When I caught Grdina at the Hideout in September 2009, with drummer Kenton Loewen, sub bassist Kent Kessler, and trombonist Jeb Bishop, he was already absorbed in the Arabic sound, playing oud nearly as much as guitar. Last year Grdina released the impressive Her Eyes Illuminate (Songlines) with his ten-piece ensemble, Haram, convincingly demonstrating how he’d reconciled his free jazz vision with traditional Arabic music. After the jump you can check out the album’s opening track, “Raqs al Jamal.”

While I admire Grdina’s ambition with Haram, I think I still prefer his small-group work, and that aspect of his music has never sounded better than on the brand-new No Difference (released on Tuesday by Songlines), which is cobilled to Grdina and the muscular New York bassist Mark Helias. A number of tracks also include Loewen and the great New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, a regular cohort of the bassist in the trio Open Loose. The album’s powerful opener, “Hope in Being,” is one of several gorgeous duets between Grdina, here on oud, and Helias, marked by a stunning interactivity that transcends any single tradition even as the music can’t help but summon the sound of both jazz and Arabic traditions. Other performances include all four musicians, including the jazz-leaning “The Throes,” where the guitarist imparts a touch of James Blood Ulmer in his playing. You can check out the track below. On Sunday Grdina and Loewen will play duets at the Hungry Brain.


Next Thursday at Elastic he’ll perform with his long-running trio, which includes Loewen and bassist Tommy Babin, who’s never played with the group in Chicago previously. It’s also been a few years since this combo has released any recordings, but Barrel Fire (Drip Audio), from 2010, captures the unit at its most visceral, noisy, and intense. The album is from a concert the group gave in 2009 at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival with fire-breathing Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson. Grdina composed four of the album’s five pieces (the fifth is a traditional Iraqi song), and although each writhes upon tightly coiled, high-velocity themes, these performances are marked by a fiery spontaneity and charged group interplay, with each musician pushing and cajoling the other toward more extreme gestures. Grdina’s tone and attack veers into flat-out rock territory here and there, as he unleashed slashing, distorted lines summoning the spirit of Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, and Thurston Moore over splintered bulldozer grooves. “En Shakoota,” the Iraqi piece, allows for five minutes of calm and measured contemplation, with Grdina switching to oud and the others sitting out, before the rhythm section returns with a swift drive and Gustafsson with his upper-register split tones.

Today’s playlist:

Various artists, Subway Salsa: The Montuno Records Story (Vampi Soul)
Jerome Sabbagh, Plugged In (Bee Jazz)
Marion Brown, Geechee Recollections/Sweet Earth Flying (Impulse)
Bebe, Un Pokito de Rocanrol (Capitol Latin)
Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway, Play Braxton (Tzadik)