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Mark Guiliana: A Natural Progression of Research

Angelo Leonardi By

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The most important thing is being there to serve the music
Mark Guiliana is a prominent figure among the new wave of drummer-leaders of his generation. The upcoming album Jersey is the second with his Jazz Quartet and marks his debut for Motema Music. All About Jazz met him last July, before his performance at the Malta Jazz Festival, to speak about his ability to seamlessly integrate acoustic and electronic music, his upcoming album and the current line-up of the Jazz Quartet featuring Fabian Almazan at the piano.

All About Jazz: Let's start from your Jazz Quartet, which you launched three years ago. Why did you decide to start a fully acoustic band after your electronic projects?

Mark Guiliana: All of my previous recordings as a leader were in a more electronic environment but I love acoustic music. I've always been involved in acoustic bands as a sideman and I felt that the time had come to try and make my own statement in that realm. Folk, acoustic and electronic musics are of the same value to me and they equally inspire me.

AAJ: After Family First -The Alternate Takes you are about to release Jersey. Can you tell us more about it?

MG: Before Family First I hadn't played any real gigs with the Jazz Quartet. I just wrote the compositions, then we rehearsed and recorded the album. Since then we have been playing together a lot. The main difference between the two albums is that whereas Family First featured Shai Maestro on piano Fabian Almazan is the pianist on Jersey. Shai was too busy to do our gigs so Fabian took over after the release of Family First and has been with the band ever since. So Jersey documents the current version of my Jazz Quartet and its ongoing evolution. It is coming out in September and it features new compositions.

AAJ: You have been playing with Jason Rigby and Chris Morrissey for a long time and the interplay within the band is remarkable...

MG: We have been very close friends for many years and we play a lot together, in a variety of situations.

AAJ: When did you meet them?

MG: We met years ago, in New York. Personal relationships are very important to me. They make their way into our playing, and can definitely improve the music.

AAJ: I hear some influences of John Coltrane in this project.

MG: In many ways Coltrane is one of our heroes and, as you know, he was using a similar line-up with saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Many people have used that configuration. When I was thinking about my "jazz project" I wanted to put myself in a most common environment. With electronic music it can be easy to be different using unique sounds and configurations. With an acoustic jazz project, the stimulating challenge comes from trying to make a personal statement in the most common configuration.

AAJ: You are considered one of the musicians that is reshaping the role of drumming in jazz music, through a personal blend of jazz tradition, drum 'n' bass and electronics. Is this the result of a deliberate, planned, approach or does it represent a natural development?

MG: My goal is to allow all my main influences to coexist in a natural way. I take inspiration from many different sources and I think the best results come when I am not thinking at all about specific influences or about how to best incorporate them in my music. It should all come naturally.

AAJ: Can you briefly explain your approach to drumming?

MG: I focus on the fundamentals. What are my main responsibilities every time I play? The most important thing is being there to serve the music and play in support of the other musicians, trying to inspire them. I strive to give the music a good feeling. This is this what I'm thinking about when I'm playing. It is only later that maybe I can start to think about my own ideas or how to develop a unique approach. However, I don't let myself think that way until the fundamentals are really strong and there is a good feeling in the group. I think that it can be dangerous to begin by injecting your own ideas. I prefer to think from the bottom-up.

AAJ: Did you practice a lot when you were growing up?

MG: I started playing when I was fifteen and I did practice a lot. However, the most important thing is playing with other people, as much as possible. Practicing may make you a better drummer but playing with other people will make you a better musician, and that's I wanted be: a musician not only a drummer. I always learn more by playing with other people than by practicing alone. Playing with other people, however, also teaches me what is that I need to practice. It is an ongoing back and forth.

AAJ: What are the drummers of your generation that you admire the most?

MG: I really like Eric Harland, Marcus Gilmore, Dan Weiss, Nate Wood, Zach Danziger, Nate Smith... I could go on and on. There are so many incredible musicians today and I am always looking up to them for inspiration.

AAJ: What contemporary bands do you like?

MG: A couple of weeks ago we were at the North Sea Jazz Festival and I heard Corey Kendrick's band. They were amazing... I really like Avishai Cohen -the trumpet player-and his band. Again, there are so many great bands. And I have to add the bands of my band-mates, who are leaders and composers in their own right. Jason Rigby has a new record coming out and he has a great band. The same goes for Fabian and Chris.

AAJ: As a composer, what are the things that inspire you?

MG: In this project it's important for me to develop parameters within the music that would fit everyone's personality. I love the way Fabian, Jason and Chris play. Therefore, it is important for me to create the space for them to improvise. So I'm always trying to strike a balance between the basic structure of the tune and a groove that enables them to inject their personality into the song. Other than that, I don't really have a method. I usually sit down at the piano and just look for ideas until they come naturally.

AAJ: Your surname seems Italian but in Italy it would be spelled Giuliana. Do you have Italian roots?

MG: As my father says, we go back a few generations. We don't know exactly why, but at some point, probably at the time of the move to the United States the spelling got changed.

AAJ: You asked your teacher, Joe Bergamini, to write the foreword of your book "Exploring your Creativity on the Drum set." It was a nice gesture...

MG: He is the reason I'm playing. When I started taking lessons I didn't have any expectations. I didn't even know if I would enjoy myself. It was really his enthusiasm that did it for me. He was such a great teacher, and really helped me to discover my love for music. In addition, he represented a living example that I could relate to and follow. It's one thing to listen John Coltrane and think: "Oh, he does it, I could do it too." But it was different and much more concrete to look at Joe, who was just ten years older than me and lived in the same town, and think: "If he does it, maybe I can do it too."

AAJ: In the introduction to the book you write "I hope this book helps you not only learn more about your instrument, but also learn more about yourself." It's a wonderful advice for young drummers... Can you elaborate on it?

MG: In many ways I've learnt more about myself through my playing than through anything else. I feel more confident at the drum-set than I do in a lot of other situations. For example, on stage I feel very comfortable when we are playing, but when I talk to the audience I feel less confident. For me playing does the talking. Music has brought me so much joy. I hope it does the same for other people.

AAJ: Why did you decide to establish your own label, Beat Music?

MG: I had lots of different ideas about music I wanted to make. At times I would be frustrated because I would get them recorded and then things would get stuck and I didn't have a way to publish. I wanted to get the music out as soon as we were recording it. With Beat Music, I released some electronic albums as well at the more Jazz oriented Family First. This would have been impossible with another label. But for me it was nice to have all those projects under the same umbrella.

AAJ: Besides your long partnership with Avishai Cohen, what have been your most interesting collaborations?

MG: I've learned so much playing with Brad Mehldau, especially in a duo setting. He was already one of my favourite musicians before I met him. We became friends and getting to play with him was fantastic, especially as a duo. That format is so intimate and leaves you with so much room to explore. That collaboration is definitely a highlight because Brad is one of the greatest living improvisers, and to get improvise with him is pretty amazing.

AAJ: You have stated "It's a mistake to claim that Tony Williams is a better drummer than Dave Grohl." Jazz purists would probably find this difficult to relate to.

MG: Well, both of those musicians had a big impact on me. Dave Grohl was one of the first drummers I saw perform. It was around the time I started playing and he definitely inspired me to continue. Dave Grohl will probably tell you that Tony Willias was a better drummer. But for me, for my experience, Dave and Tony had equal impact.

AAJ: How do you spend your time when you are at not touring or playing?

MG: With my family. Unfortunately I'm away from home a lot. Thankfully, Gretchen [Parlato] is very understanding and for now my son is too young... but yes, for me home means family.

AAJ: Is this why you chose Family First as the title of your previous album?

MG: Yes, of course. And Jersey, the title of the upcoming record, represents the place where I'm from.

Photo credit: Deneka Peniston

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