Thirty-eight-year-old Mark Guiliana has gone from playing New York City’s seediest jazz bars to recording with one of the greatest rockers of all time. Mark’s work on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, jettisoned him from busy jazz drummer to international rock celebrity, interviewed in global media outlets about Bowie’s impact on his life and his burgeoning solo career.
Long before recording Blackstar, which was tracked in the now defunct Magic Shop studio located on a small side street in Greenwich Village, Guiliana was very active in the New York jazz community, known for his acute work with Avishai Cohen, Brad Mehldau (in the duo Mehliana), Donny McCaslin, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jason Lindner, Lionel Loueke, and Matisyahu, as well as with his wife, Gretchen Parlato, and his own band, Heernt. In 2015 he released the debut album by his Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet, Family First, followed two years later by Jersey.
Even as his jazz-based work increased, though, Guiliana explored electronic music, beginning with 2012’s Beat Music, leading to his latest release, Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! “In 2014 I released My Life Starts Now, which was more compositional, coupled with The Los Angeles Improvisations,” Guiliana says. “That had a much more improvisational, slightly more edgy feeling. This new album is almost entirely through-composed.”
Joined by longtime compadres Jason Lindner and BigYuki on keyboards and Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! is initially unsettling not only for its dry, buzzing electronic production, but its ubiquitous yellow artwork, reflected in the band’s wardrobe of matching yellow sweat suits.
Sounding like a cross between an all-instrumental version of ’70s funk band Chic with Kraftwerk’s Tour de France, Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! is a weird world of buzzing tones, kaleidoscopic beats, and mind-bending production effects. It’s laconic and amusing, funk-infused and animated, as sunny as a day at the beach yet as dark as urban dread.
Opener “Girl” dazzles like a strobing mirror ball. “Bones” turns the Pac-Man soundtrack into grooving dance-floor fun. “Bud” dishes a virtual world of candy-red sunsets and live glitch beats. “Bullet” recalls Chick Corea’s original Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy by way of frisky beats and warring spoken-word bots. “Roast” gurgles like electronic pinball. Finally, “Stream” lulls with low notes and excited tones, like children’s toys banging against a displaced, dub-heavy Bernard Purdie backbeat.
Somehow, all of this sits comfortably within the musical aesthetic that Guiliana has become revered for in recent years, whether he’s playing in this type of hyper-modern electronic setting, or in acoustic-jazz ensembles like his own. And while the David Bowie association might have spread the word of his highly appealing approach to the masses, to the rest of us, each new release and tour have simply been one more step forward in the drummer’s ever-evolving and unique career. And evolution, for Guiliana, is inevitably good.
MD: What’s been the biggest change for you as a drummer since Blackstar?
Mark: Confidence. Around 2014 I started to focus more on my own music and compositions and making records and touring both with Beat Music and the Jazz Quartet. That can be a daunting road. I was trying to wrap my head around that artistic path, both logistically and artistically, and what it means to conceive and make my own music and be proud of it. To be around David Bowie making Blackstar and to see his commitment to his vision and his relentless artistic pursuit of exactly what he wanted it to be was inspiring. I try to bring that with me and build that confidence to believe in my artistic choices and invest in my own path.
MD: He knew what he wanted, and he was using you and the other musicians to get there?
Mark: Absolutely. It was crystal clear. The demos were rough around the edges, but everything’s in there. A lot of the grooves were programmed, so I was trying to find a way to play it all at once on the acoustic kit. The thing that was truly mind-blowing was the way Bowie had this crystal-clear vision, but it was coupled with great openness to our ideas; it felt like a democracy. I’ve been around people with incredible vision, but that usually meant they weren’t open to other ideas. I’ve been around people who are very open, but they don’t have that clear vision. So that was really the first time that I was around someone who really had both in a beautiful balance.
MD: Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music!—what’s up with the yellow sweat suits?
Mark: It’s about intention on every level. Sometimes you have these master musicians who are dealing with the music on the highest levels, and then other elements of the presentation are left unnoticed. The visual element is a powerful element. I don’t know why the yellow sweat suits, but I like the idea of the uniform; it unifies us onstage. We are absolutely equals, and we’re in it together. And then visually, it’s a vibe. It’s the intention: “Hey, we thought about this.” We put so much energy and effort into the music, why not pay attention to some other details including presentation?
MD: Does Beat Music drumming pollinate your jazz playing?
Mark: Very much so. My goal is to always approach the music from the same place and make the best choices for the music and to be in the moment. Orchestration has so much to do with it. When I play a small kit with bebop tuning and cymbals with rivets, the instrument itself really sends me in a certain direction and makes me play certain things. A kit with a larger bass drum with muffling and a dead floor tom and only hi-hats, that sends me in a totally different direction. So I’m not really thinking about what I can and can’t do, it’s more about being in the moment, and the orchestration is doing a lot of the work.
MD: How do you trigger?
Mark: I have a Roland SPD-SX, because Music features vocals and spoken word a couple one-shot sounds. We invested much energy into the sounds on the record and certain production ideas, bringing those into the live show helps paint that sonic landscape. We’re not playing to anything in time; we’re not playing to samples.
MD: The Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! material is largely through-composed.
Mark: Maybe it’s an influence from Blackstar. I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate, but looking back, I really invested in the compositions, and particularly in my demos. I would play the demos for the guys and let the demos do the talking, if not all the talking. I’d be crazy to tell BigYuki how to voice a certain chord or Jason Linder what kind of distortion he should put on a sound. I tried to provide as much information as I could but absolutely left room for their mastery. It’s subtle. It’s not your typical improvisation over a form. You hear that kind of virtuosity, but it’s more sonic virtuosity, production virtuosity, the minimal choices. That’s what separates the master musicians; it’s in those details.
MD: Thematically, the record is simpler and more focused. What tools did you use?
Mark: I work in Ableton Live, but I use 2 percent of what the program can do. It’s a workstation. It has MIDI and plug-ins to emulate sounds, but they’re all just placeholders to inspire the guys. In a perfect world the composition will start on the piano, I get inspired by some harmony or melody, and then in the computer I’ll layer things, simple programmed beats. Everything was recorded live but not always together, over different times at different places. I had confidence in that process because I’ve had long-standing relationships with everybody. So I trusted that because of the amount that we’ve played, there will still be that connection.
MD: Zach Danziger has said that his goal was to sound like a machine, but is that the goal for this music?
Mark: I’m heavily influenced by electronic music and programmed music. It takes a lot of discipline to create a certain kind of programmed feeling. But the beauty lies in knowing that at any moment I can make a new choice that a machine can’t do unless we ask it to. So I’m always trying to toe that line, if the music calls for playing in a disciplined way or to pay respect to that influence. But at any moment there can be plenty of human blemishes and choices to wake it up from time to time, to make sure that it isn’t a machine.
MD: And what are those influences?
Mark: My electronic music heroes are that whole Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert, Photek crew. This record is different from that music, but my heart still lies in that world. I’m trying to allow everything to come into play. The Photek influence might come out through the discipline to play a single thing for a while, but that thing might not necessarily be what he would do, so I think it’s more a mentality than a style.
MD: What role do cymbals play in Beat Music?
Mark: I’m going for a dry sound from the drums, so the role of the cymbals is quite minimal. I actually think of the synthesizers as the cymbals in this music. If you play a lush chord on a synth with the filter open, it will be living in the same frequencies that a crash cymbal would. The role of the hi-hats is crucial in this environment, but I’m avoiding long sounds in general. If there were more cymbals in this music, it would start to get a little too “fusion-y” for my taste. By removing these longer sounds, I really love the space that’s created—it inspires me to play differently from how I normally would. In the Jazz Quartet, cymbals are often the focal point, but the drums really do the driving in this more electronic world.
MD: Does your grip change at all between the two groups?
Mark: No, if I’m behaving. Adrenaline gets the best of me sometimes, and maybe I’ll manipulate my technique for better or worse. I basically always play the Vic Firth 85A stick, one notch below a 5A. It’s a barely lighter 5A. I’ve been playing the 85A for ten years, so going up to a 5A feels different.
MD: Which group, Beat Music or the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet, is easier to book on gigs?
Mark: The Jazz Quartet. I’m grateful to have an agent and management and all that stuff. I was doing everything on my own, and that totally worked as a sideman drummer. But when I wanted to put more focus on my own music and do proper tours, I needed help for sure. With the Jazz Quartet we can show up and play in a tiny little bar with no amplification. We can play the nicest theater with long reverb—it works everywhere just based on the makeup of the band—whereas with Beat Music it’s reliant on the subwoofers at the venue and the size of the stage. It’s more [special] interest.
MD: How so?
Mark: With Beat Music, if the low end, the bass, doesn’t feel right, the whole gig is different. With Beat Music when the sound is great it’s almost like the music plays itself. It sounds silly to say, but it’s true. Every choice makes sense, and you play into the sound. You’re not fighting. With Beat Music, if the sound isn’t right, if the bass is a little weak, then I get into that jazz space that we have to play more, because by definition maybe the space isn’t being filled by the sound and then you get self-conscious and feel we need to play more to compensate. The music really starts to change in a way that it wasn’t meant to.
MD: It’s great that you’re getting more work as a solo artist.
Mark: It’s what I always hoped for. But then you get a reputation so maybe people don’t think to call you, which is okay. I need to be more proactive about creating the situations in which I want to play. Working with bassist Avishai Cohen from 2002 to 2008, that was my first proper gig with a lot of touring. We’re working together this year. And Beat Music is going to Japan and Europe until the end of the year. And I’ll be touring with Brad Mehldau; I recorded his latest album, Finding Gabriel.
MD: You’re supremely placed to answer this question: how can jazz draw a younger audience?
Mark: I love jazz. I love everything about it—the good, the bad, the ugly. But sometimes it can get a little selfish, a little self-indulgent with the amount of improvising. It’s closed off to the world, and that’s okay. My hero is John Coltrane; he’s taken 300-minute solos, and you could say, “Look how selfish that is.” But I say, “Look how generous he is. He’s giving us everything he has.”
But I love songs. Compositions will live longer than solos. Sometimes composition gets neglected and can serve more as a template for improvisation, for soloing. I love that, too. But regarding the music moving forward—and you don’t want to make artistic choices based on trying to get young people interested in the music— but perhaps [there could be] more emphasis on good compositions that happen to have a cool solo, too.
Songs are what really grab people. Sometimes there’s just so much energy and dedication that goes into being a great improviser that the emphasis on the composition might diminish. Compositions need more love. As I get older, I want to play great songs. I want to support that song, and if we could have fun doing so with some improvising too, that’s great.
MD: Why did you title one song on Jersey “Rate”?
Mark: It’s an acronym for Roy-Art-Tony- Elvin. Those guys are on so many of my favorite records. Take Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon. The drum sound on that record, but more specifically the room sound: you feel like you’re in the room. I just wanted to capture that. I played a couple vignettes with that in mind, thinking about the sound of the drums in the room.
MD: You’ve just relocated out west.
Mark: My wife, Gretchen, is L.A. born and raised, and ever since we started our family, she’s been feeling the itch to head back. And I’m embracing a new start. Here’s an excuse to take inventory, quite literally as I’m walking around my house full of boxes. I’m trying to re ne what I do and make the most of it moving forward.
Exploring some of the baddest grooves from Guiliana’s latest release.
by Willie Rose
On the opening track of Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music!, a syncopated, droning bass line deceives before Guiliana enters with a solid 4/4 groove. Check out the rhythmic phrase:
And around the 0:24 mark, Guilana adds this minimalistic pattern.
Guiliana anchors the A sections of “Bones” with this driving 16th-note groove.
Dig Guiliana’s pattern in the B section, in which his syncopated feel straddles a thin line between a 3/4 and 6/8 perspective.
Don’t miss the subtle dynamics here between the hi-hat accents and snare ghost notes in what could otherwise resemble aseemingly simple groove.
Perhaps one of the boldest phrases on Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music!, Guiliana drops this syncopated pattern over this tune’s bright, bustling synth lines.
This slick, largely linear pattern fuels the album’s closer around the 1:48 mark. Pay close attention to the accents throughout.