FEATURE: Mark Guiliana (RCM Festival of Percussion, 6 May and touring)

Mark Guiliana
Photo Credit: Gretsch Drums 

Ahead of his appearance as headline act at the Royal College of Music Festival of Percussion and dates around the UK leading his jazz quartet, drummer and composer MARK GUILIANA spoke to Dan Paton about approaches to teaching and learning, and the full span of his professional playing career.

Mark Guiliana is justly renowned for contributing to a new language in contemporary jazz and at the drum kit, one that draws as much from electronic music as it does from the jazz tradition. However, his headline appearance at the Royal College of Music’s Festival of Percussion (tickets from just £10 available here on the RCM website) will involve him doing something which might be considered a little unexpected – playing with the RCM Big Band. This is the centrepiece of a one day festival that interprets percussion in the broadest sense – with appearances from West End percussionists Damien Manning and James Powelland timpanist John Chimes. There will be lessons available and a trade fair featuring representatives of many drum and cymbal brands.

Guiliana is enthusiastic about the prospect: “It’s a unique experience – I’ll do a workshop during the day and then join their big band during the evening.” Guiliana says he feels ‘honoured’ to be asked to appear as headline act and he clearly feels it as particularly good time for drummers generally, highlighting the continued influence of Steve Gadd and citing Marcus Gilmore, Eric Harland, Justin Brown and Dan Weiss as important near-contemporaries.

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It might be expected that the RCM Big Band might explore more contemporary material as a result of Guiliana’s presence – but they will actually be playing some fundamental core repertoire. “Some of my favourite repertoire in that style is the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band,” Guiliana explains. “I studied with John Riley for a few years. He was a very important mentor for me and of course took over Mel Lewis’ chair in that band and has held it ever since. I haven’t played the music directly all that much myself, but I feel connected to it through John and I thought this would be a nice opportunity to play it.”

Clearly, studying with Riley proved pivotal for Guiliana: “My first teacher was Joe Bergamini here in New Jersey – he provided something foundational, what you really need from a first teacher. When I saw John, I was still in high school and we got more in to jazz specific material. That really kicked the door open for that path.”

The opportunity to hear Guiliana in a swinging context should prove fascinating, shedding light on different facets of his musical background.

Guiliana started playing in his mid-teens, inspired by an MTV diet of proficient rock music from the likes of Soundgarden and Red Hot Chili Peppers. This seems like a somewhat indirect route in to the musical concerns Guiliana has developed as a professional, although surely not an uncommon one. “I think the best way in is just with the music that excites you – and that’s what it was for me at that time. There was zero strategy – when I sat down at the drums, that was how I wanted to play. It was very natural and organic.”

‘Natural’ and ‘organic’ are two words that Guiliana returns to frequently during the course of our conversation, clearly believing in finding a path that works for the individual. He certainly made rapid progress, given that he would already be recording with bassist Avashai Cohen a mere eight years later. He again credits his teachers here: “Joe and John were a huge part of that. It was also really fun. Even the monotonous detail was fun for me. I wanted to do the work and was constantly playing.”

Guiliana clearly still works patiently and methodically on his craft today, and has also spoken about the importance of separating the content of practice from actual playing in performance. “The work I put in now at times doesn’t even resemble music!” he confesses with a sly grin. “It’s so fundamental that I just wouldn’t think to insert those things in to the music in the same way that I’m working on them. A good analogy is the athlete,” he claims. “A football player might try to imagine all the possibilities they need over the course of a match, but you would never enter a match and say I’m going to use this one thing. It’s all about the moment, and in that moment it happens in a very natural way. At home, I’m working on things at a much more molecular level and I’ll let the big picture stuff happen in a given musical moment.”

Perhaps insightfully, Guiliana actually credits his relatively late start as being helpful. “I was old enough for it to be my own choice,” he affirms. “There was no one over my shoulder asking if I’d practised on any given day. It was my own drive and my own little world.” He also highlights the importance of taking every available playing opportunity. “Practising for practising’s sake isn’t particularly inspiring, but working on something knowing that I could use it in a particular environment certainly was! Whether it was the marching band, the jazz band, the pit orchestra or the choir, it always made me want to practise because I felt how it was helping me in a real musical situation.” He proceeds to offer some excellent advice to any young drummer starting out: “The most important thing is just to play with other people as much as possible – whatever that means is great. Over time, you may learn that you prefer certain situations more than others. Even if you learn that a particular musical environment isn’t for you – that’s also positive, it’s something you’re taking from it.”

Whilst Guiliana is a busy and successful working musician, teaching obviously remains important to him. “I think it’s important for teacher-student relationships to have consistency and I’m not around enough to have any consistent students – but I do love the group teaching situation.”

Guiliana also published a book last year (Exploring Your Creativity on the Drum Set). “I tried to pack all of my ideas in to one place,” he suggests. “It’s my humble contribution to a massive area. When I was starting, I was heavily reliant on books.” The book offers systematic and clear routines to develop fundamental playing concepts – including exploring subdivisions and developing timbre and orchestration around the kit. More generally, he seems to see teaching as a means of fostering good attitudes in approaching music. “I want to remind people that we’re lucky to get to play music. The opportunity to play music is not something I take lightly. If you start from there and work backwards, you realise the discipline and the work you have to do. I want to learn how good music makes me feel and then, whatever it takes to keep doing it, I’ll do it.”

Guiliana credits playing with Avishai Cohen (above on video in Leverkusen in 2007) as his first big break in the professional industry. “It was the first in many ways – the first real professional gig, the first experience of being on the road, the first time playing on records that people might hear!” It also proved fortunate for being such a long playing experience (Guiliana spent nearly seven years in Cohen’s band) and Cohen has clearly had an influence on Guiliana well beyond that time frame. “Now I’m doing more bandleading myself, I’m certainly reflecting on those times and Avishai was certainly a good bandleader.”

In what ways has Cohen influenced Guiliana’s band leading specifically? “He had great confidence – he knew what he wanted and what was best for the music but not in a pushy or demanding way. I always felt like I was part of the solution. Especially with so much improvisation in the music, I’m always trying to find the balance between being open to the individual musicians’ creativity but also getting my ideas realised when I’m confident about them.”

One of the key strands in Guiliana’s work under his own name has been the incorporation of ideas drawn from electronic music. How did he first begin to explore these sounds and approaches? “A friend of mine handed me a copy of Squarepusher’s Feed Me Weird Things and I haven’t been the same since,” he enthuses. “It reminded me of the first time I heard Tony Williams. I didn’t totally understand it in my brain but it created a feeling in my body and I knew I had to chase it. It was very unique and profound.” The idea of a bodily response to music is intriguing – where and how does Guiliana feel this? Is it visceral or emotional? “I think it’s all of these things,” he says. “Sometimes you might come across something – say, chemistry – and not understand it but still be able to move on. But here, I was 19 years old and the energy and density in the music were very attractive to me. There was something telling me I should not stop until I get it.”

Guiliana’s first album as leader was Heernt’s Locked In A Basement in 2006. “I was on the road with Avishai at that point and I had some ideas of my own that wouldn’t be appropriate with Avishai’s music. I got some guys together (bassist Neal Persiani and saxophonist Jason Rigby (who still works with Guiliana as part of his jazz quartet). Guiliana is evidently still proud of this recording. “In lots of ways, it’s not so different from how I still make my own recordings. I make them… for me, actually. I guess that’s the whole point. For any artist, when it’s time for them to make their own statement, they should make the statement that’s true to them. That is what the Heernt record represents for me.” In drawing from both tradition, and contemporary rock and electronic music and involving complex rhythmic ideas, Locked In A Basement introduced musical preoccupations Guiliana is continuing to explore today.

Now that Guiliana leads a jazz quartet exploring more acoustic approaches to writing, recording and performing and a more electronic project (Beat Music), are there different processes to each project? Given Guiliana’s propensity for drawing connections in music (as he did in comparing the impact of hearing Squarepusher with the impact of hearing Tony Williams), perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous to assume some kind of division? “Compositionally, they are quite split,” he explains.

“For the Jazz Quartet, there’s more space for the musicians to explore and that’s very intentional. Most of the compositions come from the acoustic piano because that is one of the main voices in the group. With Beat Music, I am including the more electronic sounds in the compositional process. Sometimes the timbre and sounds are of equal importance to the melodic material itself. Something that might sound great with a particular synth sound might not be so inspiring if I bring it to the piano. Similarly, if a bass line sounds good on an electric bass with an octave pedal and distortion, it won’t have the same feeling if you bring it to the double bass. I’m trying to imagine the sounds and use them to my advantage from the very beginning.”

Is it also fair to say there are differences in approaches to recording each ensemble too? “With the Jazz Quartet, we know that certain studio techniques are eliminated from the very beginning. We know that these will be performances essentially captured live in the studio with everyone in the same room. Right now, I’m working on a new Beat Music release, hopefully for next year. I’m still looking to get the same fundamental performances – I want that human element, but I won’t be afraid to dig in to the production more with overdubs and things like that.”

UK audiences may still be more familiar with Guiliana from some of his collaborative projects. In 2010, Phronesis released a highly acclaimed live album that featured Guiliana sitting in for Anton Eger. “With Avishai, we would come over to the UK once a year or so for shows at Ronnie’s. I met people like Jasper (Høiby, Phronesis bandleader), Sam Crowe and Adam Waldmann, people that have all become good friends. It’s nice to have snuck in the door for a little while, and there were certainly some overlapping influences with Avishai’s world that made that a little easier to do.”

Also significant has been Mehliana, Guiliana’s apparently ongoing collaboration with Brad Mehldau. “I met Brad a few times while I was playing with Avishai and he came to a gig in New York that was an early version of my band Beat Music. We had an idea to work together in that more electronic framework, so he came to my rehearsal space in 2008, we made this keyboard rig and just improvised. We did this a few times as schedules allowed, but we didn’t play a proper gig until 2011. From there we started touring and eventually made a record.” This is clearly a project demanding a lot of patience, given the busy nature of both Guiliana and Mehldau’s schedules, but having performed as a trio with John Scofield in Europe last year, both are keen to return to the collaboration at some point in the future.

Guiliana’s playing reached the ears of audiences well beyond the contemporary jazz world with his appearance on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar in 2016. This came about following an initial collaboration between Bowie and the big band composer and arranger Maria Schneider (for Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime, first included on Bowie’s hits compilation Nothing Has Changed). Bowie had actually sought to collaborate further with Schneider but Guiliana claims she ‘very politely declined’ due to focusing on her own projects. Instead, she suggested that Bowie record a whole album with Donny McCaslin’s band, including Guiliana on drums.
How did this compare with working in a jazz specific scenario? “It was a very organic situation, being in New York and working on that music,” Guiliana suggests. “There was lots of freedom – while all the songs had lots of detail and had demos, David was very open to our ideas and always encouraging us to take chances and inject our ideas. As a sideman, it was great balance where it’s very clear what is being asked of you but it is married with a very open and encouraging approach.” Would Guiliana consider taking on a more mainstream project like this again in the future? His response is positive: “Oh yes, absolutely, if the music feels good.”

Guiliana has often spoken of the importance of creating confidence – and it quickly becomes clear that he means this as a life goal as much as a musical pursuit. “The goal is to be the best version of yourself, both musically and in general,” he explains, before proceeding to make an important distinction. “There’s a very big difference between confidence and ego. Confidence is playing from a place where nothing can go wrong – which is very challenging. It’s where I can play for this moment, be free and make the choices that are best for the music right now.” The opportunity to see Guiliana make such in-the-moment choices either with the RCM Big Band, or leading his jazz quartet, should not be missed. (pp)

LINK: RCM Festival of Percussion on 6 May

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet April 2018 British Isles Tour Dates

26 April Band On The Wall, Manchester
27 April CBSO Centre Birmingham
28 April Turner Sims Concert Hall Southampton
29 April The Sugar Club Dublin

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