Screaming horns, wandering bass, shadowy drums and a piano that sounds like it’s being punched. That’s free-jazz, right? Not according to the driving, electronic-music-minded drummer Mark Guiliana, who co-leads Mehliana, a duo with pianist Brad Mehldau; can be heard on recordings by bassist Avishai Cohen and keyboardist Jason Lindner; and helms his own powerful band, Beat Music. On the composed-in-the-moment Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations, one of two new albums Guiliana recently dropped on his brand-new label, there is synthed-out funk, tribal rock, wild, Rhodes-driven jazz and deep, spacey dub. It’s about as far away as you can get from the abstraction you’d typically associate with a free-improv session, and it essentially explains who Guiliana is.
As is clear from the name of his band and label, Beat Music Productions, this is a man whose world revolves around groove. Ask him to play free and he’ll hand you a document of ferocious, unforgettable rhythm. Ask him for an LP of compositions like My Life Starts Now, the other album released in September, and you’ll get a more thoroughly realized version of the same. More than anything, these records argue that the 34-year-old is a leader worth following. A musician with vision. And beats.
Born and raised in Florham Park, N.J., Guiliana discovered music at age 15, mostly on his own. Growing up, no one in his house was playing music, but drum lessons seemed like a fine enough hobby. Right away, he was hooked. “The drums were in the basement, and I’m sure for my parents, or my brothers, it was like, ‘Yeah, Mark’s just down there making noise,'” says Guiliana, wearing a blue Nirvana T-shirt and oversized glasses, in the café area of a WORD Bookstore in Jersey City, where he currently lives. “And meanwhile I was transcribing Roy Haynes solos. So it was my own little secret of ‘Whoa, I found this thing that’s mine. And I really wanna do it.'”
After a high school experience full of music-jazz band, marching band, a rock group and more-came four years at William Paterson University, where he studied with drummer John Riley. But perhaps the most important connection Guiliana made during college was not with a formal teacher. In 2001, Guiliana met and began working with bassist Avishai Cohen, and in the fall of 2003, just a few months after graduating, the drummer joined Cohen’s trio (initially alongside pianist Sam Barsh and later Shai Maestro). Guiliana stayed until 2008, appearing on six albums and traveling the world. “The first time I got on a plane to play music was with him, for sure,” says Guiliana. “First time I went to Europe. Many, many firsts. First legit record I was on.”
Guiliana learned a lot at “the university of Avishai,” from groove to how to communicate clearly as an artist. “He has a rhythmic perspective that’s really invaluable,” says Guiliana. “The way he feels and hears rhythm is so strong. And to try to take what I could from that was really helpful. And [I learned] how to lead a band, how to present your own music, the drive of being confident in your vision and communicating that vision.”