Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music Finds the Jazz in Electronica

Drummer and composer Mark Guiliana carries an acoustic jazz quartet and an electronic music collective with equal passion. In this interview Guiliana explains how varied influences coexist in his mind and his music.

Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music!
Mark Guiliana
12 Apri 2019

Mark Guiliana is a creative instrumentalist who works in two genres with equal success. As a jazz drummer, he is first call, playing in the New York scene with the finest musicians and, famously, part of the jazz group that David Bowie collaborated with on his final recording. As a composer, producer, and drummer in modern electronic music, Guiliana is even more iconic.

Maybe most interesting is that he defies what seems to be the general practice in the new century: as a leader, he has kept his two passions largely separate.

In an era of hybridity and new forms of fusion, Guiliana has established his acoustic Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet and his Beat Music collective as relative non-hybrids. On the surface at least, never the twain shall meet. The former plays immaculate jazz in some for the swing tradition, and the latter is an array of synthesizers, electronics, percussion, bass lines, and powerfully precise drum grooves from the leader, littered with spoken word elements and tons of humming, buzzing, slippery melody.

Guiliana sees the projects as close cousins.

Guiliana’s latest is emphatic:
Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! The ensemble plays music that has been almost entirely through-composed by Guiliana. These are players who might well improvise live in a club, but on Beat Music! they are executing an architecture that is precise. The effect, oddly enough, is not one of monotony or tightness but exploration. Guiliana’s compositions are flowing, like improvisation, progressing through ideas, letting themes mutate and grow, allowing shifting textures and rhythms and harmonies to create a cinematic sense of drama. You can see the colors and shapes flying by in your mind’s eye.

PopMatters interviews Guiliana about his two projects, their influences on each other, and how his generation—which came of age in the 1990s—uses electronic music and hip-hop as an organic influence on a new wave to creative music or jazz.

Let’s talk about your acoustic quartet first and how that band’s music is different from most traditional jazz quartets. How does that connect to your music with the Beat Music Collective? Though the instrumentation of the quartet is traditional (tenor saxophone, rhythm section), your arrangements for it suggest lessons learned from writing more “through-composed” electronic music.

The biggest difference is the idea of general structure and discipline. In a compositional way, that can be present with the quartet. But you can bring that in an organic way into the improvising as well, and break from the idea that just because we finished the written melody now you can just do whatever you want until we play the melody again. Now, that may be an unfair stereotype of most jazz improvising—I don’t want to speak in broad strokes.

The more electronic side of my music, what I’ve done with Beat Music over years—and what I’ve loved so much—is to use an element of discipline and repetition. I feel more confident doing that in the electronic realm because it’s more stylistically appropriate to sit inside one idea for as long as it seems inspired and to let it develop in that way. You rely more on the trance element rather than the ever-changing ideas from jazz.

Some of those arrangement choices with the acoustic group are ways to ensure that we don’t rely on the more prototypical path or structure of jazz. I haven’t thought about the connection between the quartet methods and the Beat Music methods too much. Those ideas entered in an organic way, emerging from the group dynamic of the quartet. I’m just thinking of the big picture, the sequence, what kinds of sounds we’ve heard already where we want to go next. I’m always trying to exploit all the different sounds that are available in the acoustic situation.

On the acoustic quartet records, you set up different episodes within the same tune, not just a series of solos but variations of setting: swing, unaccompanied piano, a duet, a different rhythmic underpinning. You do the same thing in your electronic music and it seems like a strategy that comes from that source.

I think a lot about the different kinds of sounds that are at our disposal. In the electronic work, it’s much easier to manipulate the sounds, like with synthesizers, so it feels seemingly infinite. But in the acoustic format you have a lot of options too. I’m always thinking: there’s only one version of the quartet, playing all together at the same time. But we have four trios to play with. How many duets to we have? I think it’s six. Then we have four true solo sounds to play with. That a lot of options, but it’s all too easy to fall back into all four of us playing the whole time. So I definitely do try to put a lot of thought and energy into those kinds of choices.


Trumpet by minka 2507 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Are there lessons that run the other way—from your jazz playing to electronic music?

It absolutely does. The emphasis on the individual might be a little more obvious in jazz—they are true soloists and music is drawing attention to their choices and their improvising in a traditional way. But for me the personalities of the individual musicians in electronic music, although they are playing written parts, are that much more important because there’s a “part” and I’m relying on their intuitive choices. Those choices or variations may be more subtle, but I think of that as improvisation at a more molecular level. Although they may not be choosing what notes to play, in every moment they’re making their own voices about specific sounds, velocity, articulation, placement—all these things.

As a fan of music, it’s those kinds of things that separate master musicians form the rest. When I think about my favorite musicians, the magic lies in those kinds of details. I love a virtuoso on an instrument as much as the next person, I love improvising in a traditional jazz style, but when you can hand someone a part and they can bring it to life with their intuition, that’s exciting and very fulfilling. As the composer, I think, wow— It’s pretty much what I asked them to play, but it’s been catapulted to a different universe with that performance.

It’s with great humility that I present a written part to these musicians. I would be insane to tell Jason Lindner exactly what knob to turn on the synthesizer that he’s spent half his life learning about. I would be a crazy person to tell Chris Morrissey that, actually, that D should be on the open string instead of the fret that you chose. It’s their world. I’m asking them to accommodate this information I’m giving them, but please at any moment make the music yours, make you own choices.

I’m always trying to assess exactly what the music needs, and this applies to our live show too. As long as that’s being dealt with in a strong way, then we can make our own choices. Sometimes there’s not much leftover for your own choices, but at other times, there’s plenty of room for exploring.

One take on your career is that you’re living more at the poles of these styles rather than in the middle. You have done plenty of music that sits between these poles: the project with Brad Mehldau, for example. Tell us about being in the middle.

I think I definitely wake up in “the middle” every day. And each day, I think Where do I need to go today? If I lived in Beat Music, it would be quite a journey to get to the jazz quartet for a gig that night. But because I’m living in middle, I can get there quickly. Or if I lived in the jazz quartet it would really feel like a slog to get over to Beat Music, emotionally. In my mind, they’re really not that far apart.

When I sit down to play, my goals are the same with projects. The big picture goal is in trying to serve the music as best I can.

When I was younger, I used to think quite differently, depending on the music I was playing, and I found that to be distracting and it would be more difficult to move between different projects. But now, whenever I sit down I really just want to support the music, support the other musicians the best I can, play with a great sound, make the music feel good. Those things are the goals, whether it is my own music, acoustic or electric, or someone else’s music.

Over time I’ve refined that perspective from which to play and that makes it more relaxing and easier to move between styles. And also, while I have a wide variety of influences, they’re all of equal value. It would be false to say that Beat Music is really my thing and the jazz quartet is just a fun departure. When I’m there I feel just as confident as with Beat Music because of how those influences have shaped me over the years. I’m trying to let the influences coexist in the most friendly way.

A previous generation may have been cheapening its music by half-heartedly incorporating a little bit of funk, because that’s what the marketplace was calling for. Your generation experienced the influences of jazz and electric music—funk, rock, hip-hop—in an organic and genuine way. I hear them as combining honestly and artfully in your music.

Some of my first influences were burned in the deepest. I started playing drums in 1995 and my first encounters with the drums were trying to play along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, that kind of stuff. That stuff is just as deep as an influence can be in my body.

It’s still there. Even though I’ve probably listened to more John Coltrane than any other artist, it’s still a different kind of relationship. I had to go find Coltrane, and I was really really hungry and I had to figure it out. It was a little more scholastic—I went to school to learn jazz.

So it touches me in that same way, but the fact that I could turn on the TV and hear Dave Grohl playing the drums—that was cool and right there in front of me. Same with electronic music. I was too young to go to the clubs and check it out, but my favorite Squarepusher record came out in 1996, so it was happening as I was discovering it, which didn’t happen with jazz. It was digested differently.

I couldn’t remove the influence of rock and electronic music from my musical DNA even if I tried, not that I’m trying. But it came in in a very pure way.

And why would you try? It informs all your playing, including your jazz playing, in the same way that an older generation was influenced by, say, gospel music.

Sure. But, when I was 18 and going to jazz school, I thought, “I can’t let anyone know I like Nirvana, because I’m trying to sound like Max Roach.” I had a youthful urge to play the music in the way it sounded on the records that I loved. I had to grow my confidence to know that the whole point is to let all my influences coexist. That’s the only way to try to figure out who I am.

Some of the creative music that sits in the middle is more obviously a melding of hip-hop and jazz or soul music and jazz as interpreted by your generation—you seem in a very different place than that. Where is hip-hop on the spectrum of influences for you?

I’m a fan of hip-hop the same way I’m a fan of Nirvana. It didn’t hit me the same way, but if you turned on the TV in 1995, there was Nirvana, but you wait a few minutes and there was hip-hop too, a Snoop Dogg video or Dr. Dre or whoever. It was coming at me and it was cool and exciting music and it still is to me.

I think The Chronic came out in 1993 or so, and I remember being at the Jersey Shore with my parents and they have those wheels where you put a quarter on a number, and I won. I got The Chronic on cassette. I was about 12, and it might have been slightly inappropriate, but I had two older brother who were always listening to rap. That’s a really fond memory for me. I knew all the words to “Doggystyle”. I didn’t even think of it as a style—it was just the music that was happening then.

In a really generalized sense, you could look at a lot of that music and know that the grooves are quite often built from samples, prerecorded material that then created this new music. You could say that about a lot of electronic music too. You grab this one bar or two bars from a record of a drum beat and we are going to loop that for four minutes and we have a song.

Some people from the jazz side don’t like that—particularly if you use a drum machine. The whole “drum machines have no soul” thing. But I don’t agree. Maybe a drum machine doesn’t have a soul, but you could say that about a ride cymbal or a saxophone. They’re all inanimate objects. It’s the soul of the person who is making music through it. I think a drum machine in the right hands can be as soulful as a saxophone in the right hands.

The sound of loop-based, repetitious music got burned into our minds. You grow up around that music and it gets burned into your DNA. As drummers we can choose to play in that way that implies a loop even though it’s a performance. That’s what I love—to make the choice to play a certain way. I can choose to try to sound like a loop but, by definition, I can’t reproduce it exactly the same every time, and that’s what’s intriguing.

What’s like to play with the Beat Music Collective live? We tend to think of that kind of music as being the product of the studio.

Beat Music has been a project for about ten years, and over years it has taken many different forms. Most of the time it was quite open—even completely improvised where the whole night we were exploring. Even though we could go anywhere at any moment, we were leaning on the discipline of landing on places that feel good and just staying there and seeing what develops in that way. On previous records, that improvised approach informed the recording.

With this record [Beat Music!], I wanted to have a go at writing all the stuff myself. I invested a lot more in my home demos and I tried to pack them with as much detail as I could. Making the records was about replacing the demos with great performances. It wasn’t very romantic, but it was a really interesting way to work. I’d play the demo for the guys and give them a chart, but I’d say, please make it yours, please be yourself within the confines of the composition. So it still relies heavily on the performance element.

The live version of the band is two keyboard players, electric bass, and drums. The keyboards are same as ones on the record, so we can recreate it, sonically. And I think the sound does even more work than the performance itself in regard to relating it to the recording. If we can play with the same sounds, that can be a convincing version. And by presenting the sounds that are on the record, it gives us the license to explore inside that template. It opens the gates for exploration. And that’s the joy of playing live.

How many of the folks in your audience listen to both musics?

I really don’t know. I wouldn’t fault anyone for liking one and not the other. Although they feel very similar to me, I could understand someone feeling they’re too far apart for their taste. But maybe there’s a new generation that agree with me that they are different sonically, but our pursuits, our musical goals, are identical.