Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow ‘Safar-e-Daroon’ CD (Songlines) 4/5

The oud, a sophisticated short-necked lute-like stringed instrument, doesn’t really feature as much as it should in Western music. My first memorable introduction to it was Vishnu Wood’s performance on ‘Isis and Osiris’ from Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda and I also recall Mohammed Ahmed playing in Pharoah Sanders’ group for ‘A Concert For Alice and John’ at the Barbican a few years ago. With some exceptions, the oud player has been a guest musician for more established artists or there to add a little exotic colour.

However, Gordon Grdina’s oud playing on “Safar-e-Daroon” takes centre stage. This is the second release for Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow. It’s primarily a jazz project that utilises Arabic and Persian melodies and rhythms. The five-piece also consists of Joshua Zubot on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass, and Hamin Honari on tombak, daf and frame drum. An all-acoustic set up that suits the oud’s smooth and subtle tone.

And it’s this smooth and subtle tone that introduces this set on the title track, which has three sections. The first is a hypnotically slow solo. Then the pace quickens as oud and percussion lock into an Arabic groove with quality violin and bass solos. Finally, a folky dash with a top oud solo. All instruments burst into the winding and intricate signature of “El Baz” which includes a complex violin and oud duet. A plucked bass pattern kicks off the slower “Mini-Con”, the highlight of which is an intense and exciting violin solo.

On “Calling on You”, a stand out track, the Middle Eastern influences lean pleasingly into free jazz territory. “Shamshir” is a measured return to Arabic roots. “Convergence” is graceful and moving as it builds on the simple melody. On the percussive “Illumination”, the string instruments orbit the muscular rhythmic core. With the strident and joyful “Outsize”, I feel the group comes closest to achieving the ideal of merging East and West. Bowed strings wash over the simple repetitive strummed oud on “Gabriel James”, producing something balladic and beautiful.

The musicianship on “Safar-e-Daroon” is consistently excellent and it’s apparent that there’s clearly a rapport between the players. The album does serve well as a showcase for the oud and also presents some Middle Eastern musical traditions but is not a museum artefact. It is vibrant and avoids feeling academic. Maybe sometimes a little too polished and polite for me, but the strength of this release is on tracks like “Calling on You” and “Outsize”, where the traditional melodies and rhythms act as a springboard towards exciting new ideas and improvisations.

Kevin Ward