Mark Guiliana: Searching for a Special Feeling

Before & After listening session with the prolific and creative drummer

Jazztalk with Ashley Kahn

Mark Guiliana at Jazz Middelheim (photo by Bruno Bollaert)

For audiences, a jazz festival “artist-in-residence” gig offers a special chance to hear a leading musician stretch out in various contexts, over the course of a few days. One set will usually show off the player’s more traditional, straight-ahead side; the next might demonstrate a more challenging, newer aspect; and then, perhaps, there will be a collaboration with younger local players.

For the fortunate musician—such as drummer Mark Guiliana, at this past summer’s Jazz Middelheim festival near Antwerp, Belgium—it is also an opportunity to put the brakes on a busy touring schedule, stay in one place for a long weekend and bring over the family (as Guiliana did with his wife, the singer Gretchen Parlato, and their young son, Marley). Guiliana, 37, was nearing the end of a busy season, during which he played the summer festivals as the leader of his own groups and as a member of saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s band, and put the final touches on the new album from his acoustic Jazz Quartet, Jersey.

Jazz Middelheim extended to Guiliana his first invitation to be an artist-in-residence, an experience he found to be “particularly special, because throughout the year I get to play with a wide variety of my projects but very rarely one right after the other. It’s been fun to put them next to each other and really enjoy the similarities and the differences between them.”

Jazz Middelheim ran for four days in early August, and Guiliana performed with his Jazz Quartet, his electronica-fusion group Beat Music, and a rehearsed partnership with three stellar jazz players from the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. He also agreed to do his first Before & After on a beautiful, cool Sunday afternoon at the festival’s Club Stage, with more than 30 Belgian jazz fans in attendance.

  1. McCoy Tyner
    “Moment’s Notice” (Supertrios, Milestone). Tyner, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: I don’t know the recording, but it sounds to me like slightly later period Tony Williams. The first thing to hit me was the left-foot hi-hat—the really consistent left foot. What makes me think it’s later Tony is that the cymbals are a little brighter and the drums are lower; he was playing a bigger set-up. His vocabulary is unmistakable in many ways, and that intensity! Not many people would play with this fire in a piano trio. The single stroke roll at the end of the head was pure Tony. Is this late ’70s or something?

AFTER: I have so many feelings about Tony. For me, he was the one who kicked open the door to jazz. The first time I heard him playing with Miles’ quintet really got me excited. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t understand it at the time, but it made my body feel a certain way. I knew I had to chase that sound and learn more about it. For me, in many ways it started with him.

  1. Weather Report
    “Two Lines” (Procession, Columbia). Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Joe Zawinul, keyboards; Victor Bailey, bass; Omar Hakim, drums; José Rossy, percussion. Released in 1983.

BEFORE: I don’t know the recording, but my guess would be Weather Report. With Jaco. No, post-Jaco. Victor Bailey? The drummer, hmm. This era is difficult. The sound of the drums is less nuanced but still … Omar Hakim? 1983?

AFTER: The thing about Omar is he can play so well in a more popular-music setting, where he’s just playing parts with no room to improvise and maybe he’s hitting harder. But then in this situation there’s incredible touch and listening going on. He’s such an incredible musician. Yeah, the sound of the drums in that era—you can tell he’s playing these big drums and they’re pretty muted and tuned low. That was definitely a cue as to when this might have been.

One of the reasons I wanted to play this is that apparently the drum parts on this track were programmed by Joe Zawinul, for Omar to follow.

Cool. Very cool. I love it especially when the [rhythmic] ideas are coming from a non-drummer, because quite often they’ll come up with ideas that I couldn’t because they’re not intuitive with the way something would work on the instrument. I usually jump at the opportunity to try to accommodate those parts and emulate what they’re looking for.

Like when you recorded Blackstar with David Bowie as part of Donny McCaslin’s band?

For sure. He programmed certain things on the demos that I never would have come up with because I’m not him, and they didn’t sit easily on the drums. So it was a welcome challenge to try to bring that stuff to the kit in an organic way and create the feeling that the song needed. Sometimes I do this to help get myself out of my own head—using outside hardware to try to ignite some new ideas.

  1. Burning Spear
    “Black Wa-Da-Da (Invasion)” (Garvey’s Ghost, Island). Delroy Hinds, Winston Rodney, Rupert Willington, vocals; Bobby Ellis, trumpet; Vin Gordon, trombone; Herman Marquis, alto saxophone; Richard Hall, tenor saxophone; Tyrone Downie, Bernard Harvey, keyboards; Earl “Chinna” Smith, Tony Chin, guitars; Robbie Shakespeare, bass; Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, drums.
    Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: I really don’t want to talk over this because I love it. This music just makes me happy, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It makes me happy to be alive. I imagine the artist is the producer, the engineer. It’s a dubbed version of pre-existing material.

It’s definitely that. 

It’s difficult, because although that person’s character is all over it, they’re actually not a part of the performance in regards to the traditional instrumentation; they are performing the dub and they’re essentially using the studio as their instrument. So I’m thinking of those pioneers of reggae dub like Lee Perry, King Tubby, but I can’t tell which of those scientists this is. Please let me know.

AFTER: I wish I was cool enough to get a nickname like “Horsemouth”! Yeah, it’s beautiful. For me this music as a whole is always a nice, gentle reminder about why I play music in the first place. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember, because I went to school and I practiced a lot and I thought a lot and I’ve done all this homework. Sometimes the thinking can get in the way, and for me this music is coming from here [points to gut]. There’s a simplicity, but great depth as well. Thank you for including that. I’m going to get this record.

  1. Stuff.
    “Strata” (Old Dreams New Planets, Sdban Ultra). Andrew Claes, tenor saxophone; Joris Caluwaerts, keyboards; Dries Laheye, bass; Lander Gyselinck, drums; Mix Monster Menno, turntables. Released in 2017.

BEFORE: I really like the feeling—again, it feels very human. … I feel that from the drums—a very nice feeling and nice touch. I like how the instrument responds, the way the cymbals speak in the mix. It’s not hitting so hard, and I think that gives a nice human thing and a little more air to the performance. I feel like it’s British, but I don’t know who it is.

Actually, it’s a Belgian group featuring a young drummer who’s a phenom much covered by the media here—Lander Gyselinck.  He also plays with [French saxophonist] Michel Portal.

AFTER: Very cool. I like the drums playing along with electronics, too. The feeling is fairly modern; it has that busier double feeling, with the wide, half-time backbeat that is getting more and more used I think.

  1. Robert Hurst
    “Monk’s Dream” (Unrehurst, Volume 2, Bebob). Hurst, bass;
    Robert Glasper, piano; Chris Dave, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Of course, it’s a beautiful Monk song. It feels very familiar but I don’t know it. Incredible interaction; incredible open spirit. I love how the melody is being played a lot. It’s not just “Get the melody out of the way and start improvising.” The melody feels really present, and in the moment the drummer is taking some beautiful liberties and chances and shaping the music. I heard the applause, so I know it’s live, and that makes sense—that energy has a very live feeling to it. In some ways it feels like if you heard this from a distance, you might say, “Oh, it’s Keith Jarrett’s trio playing a standard.” But the individual decisions are quite modern and specific to these guys.

AFTER: I stand by my comments. Incredibly interactive and present. Robert’s just incredible and Chris is one of the great musical risk-takers of today in my opinion. I’ve heard him play very little in a contemporary jazz style, but his personality—it’s less about what he’s playing and more about where and why his choices set him apart. This performance embodies what I love about him, which is that fearlessness. In this context, there’s less room for the feeling when he’s playing more beats, but still his phrasing is really unique and progressive.

What Chris is best known for now is bringing that stuttering, broken-beat effect into jazz, so it was a curveball. 

Exactly. A lot of those choices he makes are an emulation of a sound he’s heard in a different environment, and it’s not coming from the drummer’s mind. He had to explore his own creativity to discover how to achieve these things on the drum set. It’s important for people who look to Chris as an influence to remember that, and not just see it as some cool drum stuff to play. When you understand where he’s getting it from, you can understand how to use it better yourself in a more organic way.

  1. Nerve
    “7even” (Live in Europe, Nerve). Jacob Bergson, keyboards; John Davis, bass and low-end manipulation; Aaron Nevezie, sound and real-time effects processing; Jojo Mayer, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: [immediately] Jojo Mayer—Nerve. Special props to John Davis, on bass, who’s really multitalented. He’s the co-owner of a studio in Brooklyn called the Bunker, where I’ve made my last few recordings with John engineering.

I know this song. Why do I know it? Because Jojo’s a hero of mine. He was the first guy I saw emulate electronic music live on an acoustic drum set. Going out and seeing Jojo playing this stuff live—and also Zach Danziger, another incredible New York drummer—gave me the courage to follow that path and explore that territory. Before I saw either of them I was checking out a lot of electronic music, but I couldn’t build a bridge between that sound and acoustic instruments. It was guys like Jojo who provided clear evidence of how it can be done. I met him years ago and I took one lesson with him in, maybe, 2004, and I became the guy in the front row of every show of his for many years. He’s been very generous to me, and that’s not always the case.

  1. Vijay Iyer
    “Big Brother” (Historicity, ACT). Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2008-09.

BEFORE: This is particularly challenging because the drummer didn’t play any cymbals, and that’s quite often helpful in identifying who it might be. So this is an extra curveball. This is also tricky because the piano player is playing in a way that I don’t recognize, with such great force and intensity. And the bowing of the bass.  It’s a sound that I really like, but I can’t identify it.

AFTER: When is this one from? So then Marcus was 12? [laughs] That was tricky because it was tough to hear the specific personality in such a disciplined part. He’s one of the younger guys that I try to keep an eye on—really one of my favorite drummers, for sure. Every time I hear him or see him I feel like he’s leading the way and has been for a while now. Vijay, it crossed my mind. Now it makes sense, but to me it felt more intense than what I imagine coming from him. It’s pretty rocking—and of course he can go there.

  1. Squarepusher
    “Port Rhombus” (Port Rhombus EP, Warp). Tom Jenkinson, electronics. Released in 1996.

BEFORE: I don’t know the recording. Whether it’s him or not, it reminds me of Squarepusher. The nuts and bolts of it, the beats and the bass, feel like him. But the top part is kind of sentimental, which normally isn’t a place he goes to. It’s awkwardly romantic in some ways.

AFTER: Tom’s as much a hero as Tony Williams is for me. And similar to the way Tony kicked the door open to his world of improvising and jazz, Squarepusher did that for me with electronic music. Is this from ’97? In 2000, a friend of mine in college gave me his record Feed Me Weird Things, which was released in ’96. I couldn’t figure it out; I didn’t understand it. But it created this feeling in my body that I knew was special, and I really wanted to learn more about it.

  1. David Virelles
    “Binary” (Antenna, ECM). Los Seres, percussion (“Los Seres is a fictional percussion ensemble, created and programmed by David Virelles”). Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Talk about not thinking when they’re playing, in the best way. It sounds like it’s a field recording. Folkloric music from a West African culture would be my guess, with that combination of instruments and tambours and bells. I can’t guess where that’s from, but it’s mysterious in the most beautiful way. Random, but it feels like there’s a center as well.

AFTER: Whoa. So is it a Cuban reference? Beautiful. He manipulated the performances? The bass drum sounded modern when it came in, and I thought, “Oh, is this a modern treatment of the drum?” But it was difficult to know. I think one of the good and bad things about the brain is that it’s always trying to organize, and in this context [it’s] rushing to organize what’s going on. I felt lost in a really joyful way. Really cool.

  1. Mister Barrington
    “P R G” (II, Double Origin). Oli Rockberger, keyboards; Owen Biddle, bass; Zach Danziger, drums, drum machine. Released in 2012.

BEFORE: He’s already been mentioned—Zach Danziger, Mister Barrington. I know the music. It’s the kind of thing where I might have even been in the room when Zach was mixing it. Is it their first album?

The second—a track called “P R G.”

AFTER: Knowing Zach, I’m sure it has some very interesting meaning—he is as funny as he is talented. It’s really difficult to properly give Zack his due because it’s so diverse and so impactful. He’s inexhaustible and always in search of the next thing, to the point where maybe people can’t keep up and maybe that feeds into being underrated. … He has become a great friend, and I’d like to say on the record that for my 30th birthday I curated a night of beat music at [New York City’s] Rockwood Music Hall. I asked Zack to come and do whatever he wanted. That became his first gig with Mister Barrington, so we joke that I get a cut of anything the band does.

  1. Tony Allen
    “A Night in Tunisia” (A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blue Note). Allen, drums; Rémi Sciuto, alto and soprano saxophones; Jean-Jacques Elangué, tenor saxophone; Nicolas Giraud, trumpet; Daniel Zimmerman, trombone; Jean Phi Dary, piano; Mathias Allamane, bass. Released in 2017.

BEFORE: Was he playing here yesterday? I went to the zoo with my family so unfortunately I didn’t get to see him. But I have seen him in the past and he’s a master. I heard him in the first bar—Tony Allen. This is the new Blakey tribute right? “A Night in Tunisia.”

Wow. Just the groove. There aren’t that many guys I can name in just one or two measures, but he’s the father of a really important style of music, Afrobeat. With Fela [Kuti], Tony had this unstoppable, I’d say Elvin-Trane type of connection, or like Carlton Barrett and Bob Marley, with what was happening inside the music and with the effect that music then had on the world.

I do remember hearing him talking about trying to dig and dig and dig to find these Blue Note records from the ’60s and hearing Art Blakey. And you think, that’s not necessarily an Art Blakey vocabulary, but there’s as much spirit.

It’s not about press rolls and leaning on the 2 and 4.

No. When Tony plays I get that same feeling in my body as when I hear dub reggae. It’s a technique to simply say what he wants to say and he doesn’t say anything else. It’s difficult to put a blanket statement on such a beautifully detailed genre as Afrobeat, but the grooves he plays, they don’t always sit in the obvious place. And with his touch, you can hear the instrument; you hear the wood and all the vibrations. You can hear the air. I think that’s a beautiful lesson: how the energy doesn’t have to come solely from the physicality. He’s a great example of that.