AMN Reviews: Gordon Grdina – Oddly Enough – The Music of Tim Berne (2022; AttaBoyGirl Records)

Though billed as a solo guitar album, Oddly Enough only fits that description in its periphery. On this new effort, Gordon Grdina employs electric, acoustic, and classical guitars, the oud, and a number of MIDI instruments to perform pieces written by saxophonist Tim Berne.

Berne is going on five decades of stretching the boundaries of composition and improvisation with numerous outfits. These groups feature other “outside” musicians, such as David Torn, Tom Rainey, Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell, Ches Smith, and many more. Berne’s writing has a signature complexity as well as a highly-recognizable character in its themes and melodies (I remember picking up a friend in my car some years ago, with the stereo going – five seconds after he sits down in the passenger seat, he exclaims”Tim Berne!”).

This album came about with Berne sending Grdina a piece of music for solo guitar, which Grdina recorded and sent back. This continued for the better course of a year, until there was enough for a full album release. Berne’s writing lends itself so well to small ensembles that Grdina frequently overdubs his own playing with two, three, or more voices (and even a bit of dobro in with the strings and MIDI). Thus, while some pieces are truly solo guitar, others involve contrapuntal lines, oftentimes slightly out of synch with one another. Oddly Enough bounces between these poles, from pastoral and introspective to Berne’s own twisted take on modern chamber music.

It would be interesting to know where Berne’s writing ends and Grdina’s interpretation begins on these pieces – as noted, they are clearly from the pen of Berne. But Grdina’s phrasing and instrument choice add whole new layers. He often overlays acoustic and undistorted electric, focusing on individual lines of notes rather than strumming chords. Electric soloing does not come in until well past the halfway mark, and these passages seem to give Grdina the most license to color outside the lines.

Oddly Enough provides a compelling opportunity to hear Berne’s music reinterpreted through the lens of another experienced improviser and composer. The album will be out on February 18.