The Place Between Jazz and Beat Music

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Friday October 26, 2018

From Jazztronic: On the Corner – SFJAZZ

By: Richard Scheinin

The cosmic question: How do we become who we are?

In the case of Mark Guiliana, the path has been as random as it is organic. Taking up the drums on a whim when he was 15, he was a typical Jersey kid, watching a ton of MTV and discovering Soundgarden and Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘” and, less typically, beginning to decode the design of their drummers, Matt Cameron and Chad Smith. It was as if they were talking to him, and he was taking it in ‘” the language of the drums, which he initially experienced as a physical sensation, like ‘an energy in my body,’ he says. ‘It was an immediate `I love this. I don’t know why. I need to figure out why.’‘ And then he came across Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes ‘” another world, jazz ‘” followed by the electronic rhythm mazes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.

Over time, Guiliana ‘” who performs Nov. 8 and 9 with his new band, Space Heroes, at SFJAZZ ‘” began to integrate acoustic sounds and synthetic sounds, straight-ahead swing and electronic groove. He spread his wings through funk and soul (with Meshell Ndegeocello), hip-hop and reggae (with Matisyahu) and jazz (with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, guitarist John Scofield, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato, his wife). A reviewer in Jazz Times magazine once said Guiliana ‘sounds like Tony Williams filtered through Dave Grohl,’ the drummer in Nirvana. Fair enough. Guiliana is known for a lot of things: the weight of his grooves, the stained-glass precision of his embellishments, his open-minded conception. Rather than jumping from style to style, he says, he tries to approach music with ‘one big mind.’ Technique plus imagination begets innovation for Guiliana, who has become one of the go-to drummers in the upper echelons of improvised music. With Brad Mehldau, he forms half of the duo known as Mehliana. David Bowie hired Guiliana as the drummer for his final album, Blackstar, released in 2016. The experience of recording with Bowie has become a touchstone for Guiliana, a reminder to ‘put the art first. Keep your head down, keep to your vision.’ Last year, he inaugurated a trio with keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood; they call the new project Medeski, Martin & Guiliana. Life came full circle when Guiliana collaborated with Matt Cameron, his hero from Soundgarden: ‘He recorded a record (Cavedweller) where he’s playing guitar and singing and he asked me to play the drums. I did my best to suppress my fandom, but he knows.’

Now 38, Guiliana is building a new repertoire around Space Heroes and plans to record the band next year. Conceptually, the group sits smack between two of his best-known projects: his acoustic Jazz Quartet, for which he composed a book of tunes for the traditional saxophone, piano, bass and drums configuration, and his Beat Music collective with its hard-edged grooves and electronic timbral fusions. ‘Now that I’ve put those two pillars in the ground, it’s nice to explore what’s in the middle,’ he says. A quartet with bassist Chris Morrisey and saxophonists Jason Rigby and Mike Lewis, Space Heroes leans toward ‘an acoustic palette, but it’s a bit more experimental than the Jazz Quartet and I have some electronics that I bring along that can add ambient texture. I play keyboard on a song and sometimes Mike or Jason reach for the keyboard if they feel inspired. It’s much more open, a bit more of the `anything goes’ ingredient, which for me is essential. Especially when we’re playing every night, it’s really nice to know that kind of freedom exists.’

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