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Mark Guiliana: Emulating The Source

Ben Scholz By

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It’s much more about trying to interpret the original source material in my own way. If drummers do this naturally, then we all come out with our own slightly different versions of these emulations. —Mark Guiliana
Over the past ten years, electronic music and jazz have developed a curious relationship. As programmers and DJs sought to remove the human element from their beats and loops, acoustic musicians sought to apply the tight, complex patterns of house and trance music to their traditional instruments. Drummer Mark Guiliana is at the forefront of this new vanguard of progressive acoustic artists. In this article we'll discuss his work with acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau, his studies with renowned instructor John Riley, and his new record label Beat Music Productions.

All About Jazz: I have to admit that I wasn't too familiar with your work until I saw you play with Brad Mehldau at S.P.A.C.E. last year. The whole "Brooklyn Duo" idea seems to be popular among indie rock artists and hip hop outfits, but has been slow to catch on in the jazz world. Why do you feel jazz artists are reluctant to embrace duo collaborations, especially amongst rhythm section instrumentalists?

Mark Guiliana: There are definitely fewer examples among rhythm section instrumentalists, and there are a few dual situations amongst lead instrumentalists that I've enjoyed over time. However, when one of the two elements happens to be drums, by definition the other element is responsible for the harmony and melody. Our situation is an electronic configuration that allows Brad to be the bassist, the accompanist, and the soloist at the same time. So, obviously he's carrying a lot of weight. The technology allows him to do so in a way that we're used to hearing from a larger ensemble, and that's the reason it works in our situation. I don't really have to change the way I play except in very subtle ways. I'll fill more space at times or become aware of the space that's available. Often times, there will be more space because there's just two of us. But really I'm just playing the way I hear the music.

For him it's a much bigger leap into new territory. I think it goes without saying that he's an incredible musician, and he brings his language to that electronic template. It's pretty exciting. For me it's funny, because sometimes I'll find myself with my eyes closed on stage just being in the moment. I'll hear Brad introduce this new voice as we're playing and I'll open my eyes and say, "Where's this coming from?" There's already a bass line, maybe some harmony happening, and there's a solo, and somehow he's using one of those voices as well as space to create another texture. It's pretty cool.

AAJ: Was the Mehliana collaboration between you and Brad mutual, or did one of you enlist the other to realize a personal artistic goal?

MG: It was mutual. Technically it's a world that I've been living in a little longer than Brad. My world has been electronic instruments as well as live band over the past decade, really a lot of electronic influences, while Brad's output has been mostly acoustic. We met years back, I don't remember exactly when, but we bumped into each other on the road, became friendly and talked casually about playing together. He came to see an earlier version of my band play in New York one night, and after that we decided to form the duo. It made more sense to go the electronic direction so that we could meet in the middle, between our influences. He had done playing like this before—I later found out that in High School he had done some duo work with a Mini-Moog bass and drummer. So, he had this organic sound inside his brain, but had never really explored it since.

The template was also informed by the fact that if Brad were to play bass lines on piano, these lines would be less effective in creating a larger ensemble of sound. We more or less agreed on the instrumentation, and the sonic template and from there it became a balance of playing, interacting and learning about each other musically.

AAJ: John Riley was the subject of my first article for the Drummer to Drummer column and I know you studied with him at William Paterson University. Can you relate to me a particularly memorable lesson or educational experience that you had with him?

MG: It would be difficult for me to point out one moment, the reason being that all of the moments were incredible. I grew up in New Jersey and he lives upstate in New York, and I began studying with him when I was a senior in High School. I would drive up to his house once a month and take a lesson. After graduating, I continued studying with him at William Paterson University for a year. At that moment in my life I was extremely impressionable, like a sponge. Really open. I wasn't exactly sure about where to go artistically, but I was very, very hungry so he was the perfect teacher for me. He encouraged me to explore and he challenged me as both a musician and a drummer. I really feel like studying under him was my most compressed and extreme progression.

Looking back on it now (I didn't realize it at the time) those years spent with him were a real burst of improvement in my learning. What I value most (and this is something I try to do every time I sit down to play music), is the ability to incorporate all of these experiences. He would draw from a wide variety of sources to deliver the information. If we were working on odd meters, or I would have to play a difficult song in one of my ensembles in school, I would pursue a jazz application in a way that was comfortable to me. However, in our lessons he would incorporate traditional Indian music, tabla etc. Things like that.



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