AMN Reviews: Harriet Tubman and Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio in Chicago, June 25

Had the great fortune of seeing Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio last night at Constellation in Chicago.  This was a wonderful set of a fusion of Tim Berne-like musical adventures with a large dose of Middle Eastern melodies thanks to the Oud’s heavy presence. Excellent stuff!

Gordon, who I never heard before is a fantastic guitarist with a full, meaty sound that spends a lot of time on “the low notes” to drive the music forward (until he lets loose and solos with the white-hot intensity of a Bob Fripp circa “Islands” Sailors Tale period). His Oud playing was a very cool addition hurtling the (too short) set into unexpected directions.

Initially, drummer Jim Black was the big draw for me. During this performance he was incredibly powerful, loose and in the pocket all at the same time. He is no stranger to playing in ensembles that have a “Middle Eastern flare”.  I’m specifically thinking of Pachora here although that had more of a Horn presence.

Matt Mitchell on piano rounded out the trio adding an additional layer of top-end madness to this incendiary trio. While mostly staying in “manic mode” he did occasionally bring it down a few thousand notches with some beautiful (improved?) introductions.  The alchemy of acoustic Piano within this lineup of electric Guitar and Oud (with no Bass) yielded a very dense, but at the same time, a very open feel to the sounds. If you can catch them in your part of the world, do so!!!

In addition to the Nomad Trio, the evening’s headliner was Harriet Tubman and, like their Big Ears set I left the show with somewhat mixed feelings.

The sound at Constellation was excellent and that made a big difference in things. I don’t know if it was a function of the (in my opinion), the poor acoustic properties of the venue they played at BE’s or, a live sound guy who had a love affair with subsonic noise but, at least tonight there were none of those overdriven standing bass waves smothering everything within sight. If I wanted to see that, I would just go see Sunn O))).

Melvin Gibb’s playing was still loud, intense and at times fuzz heavy (make no mistake…that is a feature, not a bug) but at least it didn’t obliterate Brandon Ross’s guitar playing. The mix last night was pretty much perfect. 

As far as the music…well, I still think that their tunes meandered a little too much, sometimes without a hint of direction or resolution…as if the music was searching for something but never finding it, but instead, just ending and me thinking to myself…”well, ok…is that it?”

But, on the other hand, because of the much-improved sound I was able to better appreciate their overall spiritual power jazz trio vibe that was smashed down into a muddy mess at Big Ears. I love Brandon Ross’s playing and last night I finally got to actually hear him. He was playing some truly beautiful melodies.  This might go without saying, but please check out Henry Threadgill’s 1993 album “To Much Sugar for a Dime” to hear Brandon just slam-dunkin it!!

Gibb’s bass playing was devastating (as expected) but he pulled out some great solos using a lot of chording and double stops along the way.  J.T. Lewis is a no-nonsense drummer but very tasteful in the context of the music. I guess it’s only fair to say that after seeing Jim Black’s octopus-like display, a mainly “in the pocket” type drummer would seem “no-nonsense”. Regardless, he held it down quite well!

Their last piece was a rousing, Gospel-infused vocal workout. Brandon has a great, soulful voice that succeeded in uplifting the energy quotient (band and audience) and was a very fitting way to end another great night of much-missed live music in Chicago.  Keep it coming!

(Once again, thanks to Larry Blatecky for photos!)

Mike Eisenberg
meisenberg@hotmail.com
Twitter: @bigaudio999