Drummer Mark Guiliana steps out as composer and bandleader on his impressive debut


  • Deneka Peniston
  • Mark Guiliana

In the last few years it seems like drummer Mark Guiliana is the musician who's first called when a jazz-oriented project seeks a heavy, forceful groove. Last year he paired with keyboardist Brad Mehldau on the Grammy-nominated Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch), a high-profile excursion into texture and rhythm. But Guiliana's best known for driving recent projects by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Avishai Cohen, guitarist Lionel Loueke, singer Gretchen Parlato (who also happens to be his wife), and keyboardist Jason Lindner, among others. It's no wonder trumpeter Dave Douglas enlisted him for his recent High Risk project with electronic-music producer Shigeto—the group performs in Chicago tonight and tomorrow at Constellation—as Guiliana expertly moves from conventional beats to electronic ones, giving the music a tough backbone without sacrificing its elasticity.

Last year the drummer stepped out as a leader with a couple of recordings on his own Beat Music Productions imprint, reinforcing his comfort level and versatility with electronic-flavored jazz. My Life Starts Now is streaked with subtle R&B and pop flourishes, and as you can hear below on "This One is For You," the wordless cooing of Parlato fits nicely into the matrix of electric keyboard patterns, toy-piano clanking, and muscular bass. The only beats here are a steady kick-pulse buried within the soundscape. On "My Name is Not Important" you can hear Guiliana's club inclinations clearly, particularly on the hammering drum 'n' bass rhythms. I was less impressed by the album's complement, Beat Music: the Los Angeles Improvisations, which feels like half-baked jams produced for some future electronic fusion record.

Last month Guiliana released an excellent new album called Family First that is resistant to pigeonholing. It's an all-acoustic outing deeply rooted in postbop that illustrates Guiliana's connection to swing-based music, even if he routinely displaces rhythmic patterns and fractures steady time. He's supported by a terrific group of collaborators—saxophonist Jason Rigby, bassist Chris Morrissey, and pianist Shai Maestro—and they tackle Guiliana's graceful compositions as if they've been playing them all their lives. There's an extended treatment of Bob Marley's "Johnny Was," but otherwise the drummer composed all of the material, whether it's the sultry, gorgeous ballad "2014" or the infectious, Monk-flavored "ABED," which you can check out below. There are plenty of tracks that will satisfy fans of Guiliana’s more extroverted, flashy style, but in all contexts the drummer has worked to serve the project at hand as a band member, not a soloist, and that continues apace here, with magnificent, elegant results.

Prior to tomorrow evening's High Risk concert Guiliana will conduct a free drum clinic, also at Constellation, that begins at 5 PM.

Today's playlist:

Stephen Riley, Lover (Steeplechase)
Olivier Cavé, Johan Sebastian Bach: Concerti, Capriccio & Aria (Aeon)
Various artists, AfroBeat Aiways 2: Return Flight to Ghana 1974-1983 (Analog Africa)
Matthias Müller & Galatea Quartet, Brahms—Schlumpf—Müller (Neos)
Dirty Projectors, The Getty Address (Western Vinyl)

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