Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet: Jersey (review)

Drummer Mark Guiliana, known for his chops and electro-acoustic experimentation, uses the traditional jazz quartet format to make something subtly surprising and delightful.

Mark Guiliana is a drummer with a classic pedigree for his generation. He went to “jazz school” at William Paterson University’s superb program (in New Jersey, yes); served a formative period as a sideman in Avishai Cohen’s group, touring and recording; and he started a set of collaborations with both peers and mentors — in Guiliana’s case these included the pianist Brad Mehldau and David Bowie, on whose last recording, Backstar, Guiliana was the critical rhythmic presence. Born in 1980, Guiliana was influenced as much by rock as by jazz, and he has cited Jim Black as a role model for the way Black integrates influences across stylistic barriers.

Crossing stylistic barriers is Guiliana’s trump card. He has become a certifiable star drummer because (1) chops, and (2) a dazzling career in electronic music. But he has become a truly respected artistic force because his talent is equally sincere and powerful when he plays jazz
and in his career playing electronic music. On the electronica side (he founded Beat Music Productions), he has collaborated with people like bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner, who also play jazz. On the jazz side, Guiliana is precise but musical, a composer and a superbad player who blows you away with more than chops.

Jersey is the second recording from Guiliana’s Jazz Quartet, which is set up traditionally: tenor saxophone (Jason Rigby), piano (Fabian Almazan, replacing Shai Maestro), bass (Chris Morrissey), and drums. In some ways it plays traditionally — this is a band that plays primarily “inside” with post-bop harmonic rules and swings in the conventional sense. Listening to Jersey in the background, you might not hear it as special or different or particularly of its moment.

But you would be wrong.

Jersey eschews fancy footwork that calls attention to itself. It seems fair to start with the album’s last song, “Where Are We Now?” Written by David Bowie and appearing on his penultimate recording, it is an elegiac ballad built on a simple melody and rich harmonies. Rigby plays the tune with no frills in his breathy but weighty tone, singing it utterly but calmly. The rhythm section is all taste and attention. But after a full trip through the form, Guiliana and Morrissey step aside, giving Almazan a beautiful, rubato spot of solo piano. This spell is broken by the tenor, coming in to play a ten-note phrase, which is repeated until the end of the performance as the band reenters quietly, then more, then in full force, Guiliana bringing everything to a boil and then taking over until a set of voices come in gently to sing, “As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you” along with the tenor, repeated, until the end. Chills.

That is
Jersey in a nutshell: intentional, structurally interesting (not a string of “jazz” solos with a repeated melody), and reliant on musicality rather than technical wizardry. If you listen, it will get to you.

Not that it’s all quiet, all stately. The opener, Guiliana’s “Inter-Are”, is a throbbing, dancing joy. The leader and bassist Morrissey lock in at the start with a swinging, rolling pattern that forms the hip-moving rhythm for all of it. The main theme is simple and catchy, really only a single phrase played around with, and once it is established, the band cuts back to a whisper but with the groove still pumping. A saxophone solo rises and blossom into the melody again, but extended, then Almazan takes a ride on the groove, soon overtaken by that last piece of the melody. How does it end? It’s the throb again, but different, mainly the acoustic bass, piano strings hand-strummed, supported by simple handclaps. There isn’t another jazz performance/arrangement quite like it. And it’s barely longer than a pop song.

Morrissey contributes two songs as well. “Our Lady” has a driving melody that could have been written for one of Keith Jarrett’s quartets, supported by a Latin pulse. “The Mayor of Rotterdam” begins with a formal, classical-sounding theme, then it slides into a polyrhythm built on a tricky pattern that I can’t count properly, but that is played with such skill that my toe taps anyway. It is a perfect example of how this band’s chops are mind-blowing but in service to the song.

The band is highly skilled at making something great out of something slim. “BP”, written by pedal steel specialist Rich Hinman, is mostly a long build-up, but the band is so good at arrangement and interaction that you never lose interest. Guiliana’s “September” simmers at first, stating an interesting melody over a pedal point, but then it slowly unfolds around a series of unexpected chords. “Jersey”, a tribute to the leader’s birthplace and home, is built on an enchanting bass line played on the upbeats only, around which Rigby curls a heartwarming tune and a long, interesting solo. More swinging is “Big Rig Jones”, but the mark of Guiliana’s group is that they move to a bass solo first, allow the arrangement to ease back to ballad feel, then they work back into the fleet swing — and eventually a triumphant, explosive climax — over the tenor solo.

This being the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet, “Big Rig” brings that fireworks-over-the-water climax home to a tender, quiet passage of solo piano over which the melody returns but the swing does not. Each of these performances suggests some of what I suspect Guiliana learned from his love of rock and his expertise in electronica: that there are more ways to build interest and create musical art other than theme/solos/theme, and these other ways are increasing central to jazz.

Taken as a whole,
Jersey is a surprising but reassuring work of art. It is as if you grabbed the ingredient normally used for a simple, known meal and combined and cooked them differently, coming up with a whole new taste. The jazz quartet is not, perhaps, reinvented here, but it is deployed with a sense of surprise and novelty that never abandons the artful.

If there is a drawback here, it is only in imagining the kinds of dynamics and propulsion the group is capable of in concert, with more time and freedom at their disposal. Not that the tracks here are all that short, but the long arc of development on some of these tracks suggests that the quartet has other, higher gears it might get to.

I’d certainly like to hear them.

Rating: 7