Drummer Mark Guiliana has been hustling for a long time. For the last 10 odd years he’s worked tirelessly as a sideman for the likes of Gretchen Parlato, Lionel Loueke, and Avishai Cohen. But in 2014 Guiliana pushed even harder, making a shift toward band leading and songwriting. He has three releases out this year with his name receiving top billing: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch), a highly acclaimed duo project with pianist Brad Mehldau; Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations (Beat Music), with the group he founded a few years ago; and My Life Starts Now (Beat Music). In anticipation of his shows this Friday and Saturday, December 19th and 20th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery, we caught up with him by phone:
The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on all of your projects this year. What’s it been like juggling them all?
Mark Guiliana: There were a few moments when it was a little intimidating, for sure. My initial plan was to release four records at once. I didn’t want to be that musician guy who didn’t have label interest and just passively released something on his own. I wanted to make a confident statement and create the idea of an instant catalog.
I learned very quickly that I was in over my head. Four got reduced to two [ed. note: Taming the Dragon was recorded in May of 2013.] Even that had challenges, and each step felt like it multiplied by two. But it was great.
TJG: How was working with David Bowie this year?
MG: I’m not sure it could have gone better, actually. And I have to include Maria Schneider in the conversation: it was a true collaboration of theirs. David was there for every step of the way, and it was definitely apparent that he was committed 100%. There’s no mistake why he is who he is.
TJG: Musically, what were your aims for the two projects you led?
MG: My Life Starts Now became more of an outlet for my compositional voice. The Improvisations record was more a snapshot of just that: improvising with guys I trust, but still hopefully in a compositional manner. That’s a big influence from electronic music for me: the discipline, the repetition, the patience.
TJG: Who are your favorite electronic musicians?
MG: I always come back to the first guys that blew me away: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Luke Vibert. I know where I was when my friend handed me the CD-R with Sharpie® that said “Squarepusher” on it. I put it on in college and knew I was screwed, actually. Hearing that for the first time was like hearing Tony Williams with Miles Davis: it set me on a whole new path for a while.
TJG: What’s the connection between Squarepusher and Tony Williams?
MG: The first record I heard by Squarepusher was Feed Me Weird Things (Rephlex). The way I hear it, the first track actually simulates a trio of sorts playing. You’ve got your chordal voice, bass voice, and, of course, a drummer. The way the song is introduced there’s a head, then a solo, then a drum solo, and then kind of a head out. And it’s amazing how he could take a traditional song structure and make it sound like these guys are interacting and playing with each other (although it’s just him, manipulating these different parts).
Specifically, when I say it reminds me of hearing Tony Williams, it’s less about the content and more about hearing something brand new and being affected very deeply immediately. But if you did want to compare the content, there actually are similarities in the drumming itself. They both include things I could never, one, conceive playing on the drums, and, two, simply couldn’t physically play. So that’s very humbling and inspiring to hear things on your instrument you didn’t know were possible.
TJG: What is your songwriting process like?
MG: I work on a Wurlitzer at home. I do utilize the computer as well, especially more for the Beat Music stuff. It’s almost as much about timbre as it is the other elements. The sounds you discover will affect the compositional choices.
But for this new band, which is purely acoustic, I can no longer hide behind a really cool synth pad or beautiful melodic voice. It’s a fixed palette, so I actually try to use very corny sounds when I’m making the demos so I don’t get attached to the sounds. If I can like something with those cheesy demo sounds, I know I’ll be a lot happier when the guys are playing it.
TJG: Tell me about the project that you’re bringing to the Gallery, with Jason Rigby on tenor saxophone, Shai Maestro on piano, and Chris Morrissey on bass.
MG: It’s an acoustic statement. It’ll be the first time as a leader that I present music in a purely acoustic way. I consider it a challenge because, again, the timbre is fixed and it puts more attention on the true content of the composition. If you think about sax, piano, bass, and drums, that’s what John Coltrane used to express himself. And that’s really scary! I consider it more of an homage to all the music I’ve been influenced by. But it’s my original songs, so there’s not much swing.
It’s really exciting for me to have made two records this year that live in the electronic world, and then immediately make my next statement be this.
TJG: What are your expectations for these shows?
MG: It’s kind of the début of this project: we’ll play these gigs and rehearse a few times, then make the record. The music will be fresh and we’ll be trying to figure it out.
And the Gallery is a beautiful place—especially in this kind of phase with new music. The room allows for that exploration and will help us build a relationship with this new music.
The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet performs this Friday and Saturday, December 19th and 20th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Guiliana on drums, Jason Rigby on tenor saxophone, Shai Maestro on piano, and Chris Morrissey on bass. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.