Arabic and Persian sounds blend in jazz setting

A deep connection to the past requires the unique group sound and the raw emotion of the solo performance. The Marrow, a quartet that melds the styles of Persian and Arabic music with Western Jazz, brings an exciting, multicultural style to Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on Jan 29, and Capilano University Theatre on Jan. 30.

“There’s such a connection between Arabic music, Arabic improvisation and Persian improvisation that is free. There’s a sense of like, you can go with any kind of direction,” says Gordon Grdina, the Vancouver-based bandleader and oud/guitar player for The Marrow. “And Persian music is very open and free moving, which has a connection to the free improvised music that came out of Europe and the jazz scene.”

Engaging with a rich tradition

Grdina was a teenager when he first heard the sound of the oud. It was love at first listen. Having heard the instrument on one of the many CDs his guitar teacher, at the time, had lent him. Grdina was immediately taken by its sound and emotional style.

“It blew my mind right away,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how the sound being made was so percussive. And it’s such a kind of melancholy to the tone of it that I fell in love with it.”

Grdina doesn’t have an inherent heritage connection to the oud, whose long history has its roots in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish instrumentation. So when he first began playing the oud sometime later in the early 2000’s, it proved to be just the beginning of a continual, long but worthwhile process of learning about instrument and its cultural context.

“There’s always more to learn,” says Grdina. “There’s just so many great voices on that instrument, in all kinds of different regions all over the world. So it’s like, there’s this huge thing to learn from, and I want to get as much as I can.”

Looking back at the last two decades, Grdina says it’s been “absolutely necessary” to study the oud’s tradition. But at the same time, partly because he has a different connection to the instrument than others, Grdina feels the best way he can give back to the lengthy tradition is by bringing himself to the instrument.

In doing so, Grdina aims his music to create a blend of what he’s learned, while also incorporating his own background in jazz and improvisational music.

“I feel like no matter what I’m doing, I’m trying to pay homage to this tradition, and the sound of the instrument,” he says. “And the best way for me to do that is to, as honestly as possible, express myself through it.”

The Marrow promises an evening of music in the moment | Photo by Jon Benjamin

Bringing sounds together

Grdina, who has performed with many musical groups over the years, says deciding on band members is a key element to finding great sound and chemistry.

“It’s really about people that I want to pick, people that I love and what they do. And then I want to just let them do what they do,” he adds.

That’s led to a quartet that also features Iranian-Canadian percussionist Hamin Honari with experience in Persian percussion, as well as cellist Hank Roberts and bassist Mark Helias.

Helias has worked a lot with Arabic musicians and with Roberts, which allows for even more synergy and familiarity. And while Grdina looks to play a key role as the group founder, in the end he says it’s the mix of backgrounds in the group that really make The Marrow tick, three albums in.

“The composition starts to be based around musicians. So now we’re playing to the people, instead of trying to fit them into something,” says Grdina. “The whole band is this mix of different people bringing their own voices to this aesthetic, and being open to making music in the moment is really the thing that draws everything together.”

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