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Mark Guiliana: New Beats

By Published: April 8, 2008
Meeting Avishai Cohen

AAJ: It's at William Paterson that you encountered Avishai, right?

MG: Yes. Basically, I was at William Paterson at the time. Technically it was New York, with him being out and about and playing a bunch. But it was that time. The short story is that my roommate was taking lessons with him. We would just go and I loved the was like a lesson every time. When I first met Avishai, I don't think he knew I played drums. The first couple times we hung out it was just a very natural thing that we would go and enjoy the music and have fun. There was no hustling involved, or "Hey, this is what I do.'" It started from a fan perspective and we ended up playing together.

AAJ: You've stayed as a working group now for many years. There are a lot of people who play together for a little while and move on, but you have not only stayed together, but pursued a very distinct sound. I don't think there is anyone out there that sounds like you guys. Can you describe in your own words the foundation of your shared musical sensibility?

Mark Guiliana / Avishai CohenMG: I think the easy answer is the compositions. That would be the definitive answer. [Avishai's] writing and his voice as a composer is so strong that that's it. That's the sound. Yeah, we all play the way we play but the written music really delivers the message. I'd like to believe that the way I play and the way we play together enhances that foundational message. Like you said, it is rare for a group to stay together in a jazz sense for a while, and I think that is also a main contributor to the sound because we've become tighter and tighter night to night. Certainly that not only helps the music, but it helps the personal relationship and the trust, and that goes in a circle.

AAJ: You attribute so much to his compositional style but he also seems to provide a lot of space for you to explore a very different rhythmic approach to jazz drumming, which he then shares.

MG: Absolutely. It's really extremely stimulating music to play from a drummer's perspective. He plays like a drummer. He is so confident and clear with where he puts things that there is no question where things are. Ever. There are some rhythms that are extremely complex, but the way he thinks of them is very organic so I'm always trying to accompany him or serve the song in the most organic way. There are a lot of numbers that are happening and a lot of meter changes, [but] I really try to avoid thinking about the numbers because I think you can hear that in someone's playing—when they are thinking numbers. I try to sing the melody to myself and get inside the song without the "theoretical" details. For me that is the easiest way to serve the music best. In my mind it's always the song first...I'm more than happy to make the song the priority. That sounds even silly to say, because that should be the unspoken rule.

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Musical Travels

AAJ: You guys tour a lot all over the world. Have you found any favorite places to play or visit?

MG: Well, in Israel it is a very special experience. Both Avishai and [pianist] Shai [Maestro] live there. Avishai's career there has been growing, like everywhere, but there it has really blossomed into something special. A little more than a typical jazz band base. So we play big halls and the reception is overwhelming, a really, really warm feeling. Specifically in that case I am "The American." [But] I've always felt nothing but love. From family and friends, listeners. It's always been a special experience. And, Israel as a nation and a land is a very important place in the world so it has a lot of different layers of significance [to play there].

AAJ: So, three young guys gigging all over the world. You have to have some good road trip stories.

MG: There's two different kinds. The ones like VH1's Behind the Music...but for me my fondest memories are getting to meet some of my heroes or spend time and share the stage with guys that I would never, ever think I'd be sharing the stage with. Not even playing with them, just playing opposite or opening for them. To think that Branford Marsalis joined us for a couple tunes. As much as I maybe have said to myself, "Wow, it would be great to play with Branford," I never thought, "Yeah, I'll play with Branford. No problem. Then we'll hang out. It'll be cool." Those kind of moments I really remember.

AAJ: And not the VH1 moments?

MG: Those don't happen at all! We are really tame. Really tame socially, on the road. I think that may have something to do with the length of our existence too. Because everyone pays their respect to everyone else. Everyone has their own space. It's a very civil environment.

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New Direction in Drumming

AAJ: I want to talk in a little more detail about your approach to drumming. Anyone who has seen you or heard you really has to recognize that you've moved jazz drumming in a new direction. There are now some younger drummers picking up on that, but I think you are one of the first to push a more groove oriented style and I was hoping you could describe the path you took towards shaping that sound?

MG: I didn't even think of my "sound" until I had been playing for years. But at the same time what I was playing and interested in at first is just as much my sound as the stuff I have specifically pursued and tried to make a part of my sound. I think it's a balance of the things that I was naturally attracted to—the Chilli Peppers, all that rock—for the groove, but equally the energy, the way it could move people and specifically moved me. I was always just so drawn to it.

Mark Guiliana / Avishai CohenAAJ: Obviously people our age are surrounded by that kind of drumming, but a lot of jazz musicians seem to shy away from letting those early or non-jazz influences rise to the surface.

MG: Exactly. I didn't hear jazz until I made a point to go find jazz. Jazz didn't find me, I found it. It just wasn't around. My parents weren't listening to it. I didn't have friends listening to it. It was a very deliberate decision. A decision made out of love for it, but it was my pursuing it that exposed me to it. But all the rock stuff is just right there.

I've never thought about it in such black and white terms. The brief timeline of influence would be the rock thing, then the jazz immersion—which was very absolute. I went from playing double peddle with a big kit, and then built all these walls and rules for myself. I would listen to Max Roach and say I can only have this many cymbals, my drums have to sound like this, I can't play double peddle. I really went for it. And that was amazing.

As much as I love that music and will forever, I couldn't go without the music I grew up with—or the stuff that MTV fed me. That would be the next phase. Then slowly in college I started going to New York more and more. A huge wall that was broken down for me was the avant-garde scene, the free music scene. Hands down one of my biggest influences is a guy named Jim Black. It certainly helps that he is an unbelievable drummer technically. But it was really the decisions he made and his train of thought that really turned me upside down. I had never heard anyone play like that. It was beyond "right, left, right, left" ideas. The intention was so strong and so unique. He kind of gave me the courage to reintroduce the rock element and break the rules that I had built for myself: everything is cool, it's all good, it's music. Basically breaking the rules, which never even existed in the first place.

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