Mark Guiliana: New Beats


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I definitely have two parts of my brain that I am trying to satisfy. The sophistication, the jazz school thing, and I just want to hang out, feel the groove.
Perhaps most recognized for his extended stint holding down the drum chair for bassist/composer Avishai Cohen, Mark Guiliana has been pushing the envelope of jazz drumming since first jumping onto the scene. Anyone who has heard—and particularly seen—Mark Guiliana play instantly recognizes not only his incredible technical facility, but also his unique take on percussion, based as much on hard-hitting grooves, electronica, and rock as traditional jazz conceptions. Certainly, other drummers, particularly some of the younger breed, have begun incorporating these influences into jazz, nor is jazz a stranger to multi-style fusion. But few started down this path as early as Guiliana, few have embraced it with such vigor, and few have attained such distinctive results.

Guiliana continues to work as an integral part of Cohen's band, but has recently spearheaded some equally avant-garde projects of his own. We spoke with Guiliana recently about the genesis of his sound, his suburban New Jersey roots, and where he is headed next.

Musical Beginnings

All About Jazz: You were born and raised in New Jersey, correct?

Mark Guiliana: That's right. I've never lived outside of New Jersey.

AAJ: Paterson?

MG: I went to school at William Paterson. I'm from Morris County, a town called Florham Park.

AAJ: I know right where that is. Not quite Soprano's land, but pretty close.

MG: Uh, it's Soprano's land all right. [Laughs]

AAJ: Growing up around there, what were your favorite things to do?

MG: I was a sports guy. I didn't start playing music until I was fifteen. I was doing all the typical suburban kid things, sports, hanging out. Both my brothers were prolific athletes so I was kind of happily in their shadow. And then I discovered music in eighth grade just as I was getting into high school.

AAJ: That's pretty intriguing. The usual story is musical parents, started young. You don't hear as often about people starting older, and particularly getting to the place where you've been. What drew you to starting to play?

MG: To be honest I can't pinpoint it. There's no hint of musicianship in my immediate family and I was just enjoying music from a distance as most people do. But my cousin kind of casually started playing drums and I just sat down behind him and enjoyed fooling around. [Then] as a Christmas present my parents said, "We'll pay for drum lessons and agree to just a couple months to see how it goes."

So really, I guess another atypical situation is [that] when I started taking lessons is when I started playing. I see all of these things as advantages. I didn't have a chance to learn an improper technique. I had an amazing first teacher named Joe Bergamini, who has been a mentor always and we're great friends. He really took me from the absolute beginning stages...built great foundations for me to work with. It was not in my mind, "Hey, I'm gonna become a drummer." It was just, "Oh, I'll take some drum lessons."

AAJ: That 's a fast trajectory. First lessons at fifteen and then straight to being a music major. Did you find that you had a fast development right from the beginning or did it take time to build up momentum?

MG: A little of both. My love for it was aided by the fast growth. Sometimes I would be presented with stuff and I would just catch on. That doesn't mean I was nailing it, but just things felt natural pretty early. That obviously would inspire me to keep going. It fueled the fire. As little bridges were crossed here and there it kept my momentum going. I really immersed myself in any musical setting I could. Marching band, concert band, jazz band, the pit orchestra for the musicals...I was just excited to play drums.

AAJ: The more you got it into it and started to think about it as a career, is this something your parents embraced?

MG: All of it was very casual. No real decision was made. But a big [moment] for me emotionally was in my second year of high school. I was trying out for the baseball team. The coach called me in and said, "Happy to have you on board, but I know that on Thursdays jazz band rehearsal is going to conflict with practice and we need you here." So he kind of very passive aggressively forced me to make a decision. Music or sports. And I remember specifically leaving his office and feeling like the weight of the world was off my shoulders because I knew. "Oh. Wow. Here we go. It's music."

And this whole time I'm [also] playing in rock bands, because that's really where my heart was coming from. The reason I started playing was Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chile Peppers, Dave Grohls from Nirvana, and all that stuff. Getting back to the suburban New Jersey thirteen/fourteen year old thing. I was just listening to the radio and that stuff was definitely the first thing I touched. Then slowly there was a bridge to jazz...I remember specifically first it was Buddy Rich—which was cool because it was jazz but there was still a lot of drums. I started to get into technique, and he brought me to both. I started to think "this jazz thing is cool." Then it was Tony, Max, Elvin, the whole list. That was a very deliberate "Wow. I love this music. I'm going a hundred percent this way."

AAJ: Did that develop when you started going to William Paterson?

MG: A little before. Because I stayed with Joe all through high school and he exposed me to everything.

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 music...it 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?

MG: 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.

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.

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.

AAJ: 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.

New Projects

AAJ: Let's talk about some of your own projects. The Heernt band. The first album really reveals that element of throwing out the rule book. What was the genesis of that album?

MG: I was out with Avishai a lot. I had no intention of being a leader. I was learning so much. This was kind of like, "Oh, I've started writing some songs. Let's just get some guys and play them." That was the initial intention. Then as we started playing it kind of presented itself to me that this was a band, so let's run with it. So that's the genesis of the band.

As for the songs themselves, I think it helped that I was taking it so lightly. I never had a record in mind. I never had goals other than what do I feel like playing? Like electronica—you mentioned that earlier—there's a song on there that kind of has a jungly thing and it's in seven. And that is me loving a record by Venetian Snares. A lot of the compositions on their record were in seven. So I wanted to explore that world and so wrote a song as a vehicle to explore that world. Then it became a song and showed up on the record.

There is another song called "Nice" which is based around the first drum beat I ever learned, the most simple drum beat I could think of as a tribute to that. In my mind, "Wow this is the first thing I ever learned and I loved playing it." It was a joy to sit on something so simple and remember what it was like when that was my world.

AAJ: How did the typewriter get involved?

MG: The typewrite got involved because I brought it to the studio as a formal way to take notes and get stuff down because it has some special character and I liked the way text appeared on paper. Kind of a gag. "Hey, if you have ideas or want to jot something down, sit down and do your thing." Then, we didn't have an intro to the song "Locked in a Basement." The song is based around a very rhythmic phrase and again jokingly "maybe we can include the typewriter in that rhythm" and we did the intro. Then when it worked, it kind of became a band member. It's on the cover, it's in the artwork.

AAJ: I had complex post-modern theories of intertextualism and things like that.

MG: [Laughs]). As much as I love that stuff a lot of my decisions are based on (pause) fun.

AAJ: I'd say that shows on the album. It's very free, and therefore, compelling.

MG: However, I would like to add that I guess there is a fine line because it could sound like compromise but I didn't want to go over peoples' heads or ignore the listener in my thought process in making the album. It was really important to me. Particularly the song "Locked in a Basement." I found that [with] the rhythmic motif that loops through the song, which intellectually someone could excited about or maybe figure out, it was important to match that with a disco beat just a nice back-beat and some root position triads—really organic harmony to balance out the "sophistication" of the rhythm. I liked the idea—because when I play that at gigs people dance. And that was the goal. I definitely have two parts of my brain that I am trying to satisfy. The sophistication, the jazz school thing—and I just want to hang out, feel the groove.

AAJ: Tell me a little about the latest project?

MG: Specifically, I've been playing a lot with Jason Linder and the band is called Now vs. Now. We play a lot as a trio. Sometimes it features Avishai Cohen the trumpet player who is amazing and I love playing with him. And Baba Israel. But the trio unit is the most consistent.

AAJ: Will we see a recording soon?

MG: The music is definitely ready to be recorded. Now it is just the logistics. Jason is absolutely one of my favorite guys to play with. I'm always inspired. He is so open and we go to new places when we play. He was one of my favorites before we even played together so it is a real treat.


Mark On Mark:

AAJ: Did you have a favorite children's book.

MG: No.

AAJ: Favorite food?

Avishai Cohen / Mark GuilianaMG: Right now? I discovered an amazing espresso in Italy. It's called dimesse. I wasn't a coffee drinker until a year ago. And I bought an espresso machine, and I bought this espresso in Italy—and I am totally not that guy—but this is unbelievable.

AAJ: What do you do when you are not playing?

MG: Lately, its been being an uncle. I'm about a half hour from my family. Both my brothers have children and it is definitely a really big part of my life to be with them. I am as inspired by the time I spend with them as I am by music.

AAJ: And yourself? Married? Single?

MG: Single. Just hanging out.

AAJ: Audiophile or not?

MG: Can you help me with the official definition?

AAJ: I'm not sure either. People who have to spend a ton of money on all the fancy gear.

MG: Oh, no, not at all. No. Absolutely not.

AAJ: Do you have a presidential candidate.

MG:; Not enough to publicly state.

AAJ: What's the most beautiful place you've been?MG: Some of the Spanish Islands. The Canary Islands or Majorca. Hard to choose. And I'd love to have it be somewhere I didn't go for a gig. But gig's have taken me to much more beautiful places then my vacations.

AAJ: Advice for young drummers?

MG: Don't practice too much. Practice a lot. But don't practice too much. It's a fine line. Always have your ear to the ground and never lose sight of what is happening all around the world. As specialized as your studies may get, never lose sight of how important all music is. You don't want to disrespect anyone or any music, but don't be afraid to add your two cents and always serve the music. All the breaking of rules, the explorations, always has to come second to the music. Oh wait. The easy answer. Always make sure it is fun.

Selected Discography

Adam Gilbert, Fishing for Water (Independent, 2008)
Avishai Cohen, As Is...Live at the Blue Note (Smalls, 2007
Heernt, Locked in a Basement (Razdaz, 2006)
Avishai Cohen, Continuo (Razdaz, 2006)
Avishai Cohen, At Home (Razdaz, 2005)
Avishai Cohen, Continuo (Razdaz, 2003)

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