LJF 2017: Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet

Francis Graham-Dixon enjoys two sets from the virtuoso drummer characterised by shifting pace and open-ended enterprise

This was an opportunity hear one of the world’s most admired and in-demand drummers with his new jazz quartet on their second night at Ronnie Scott’s. Mark Guiliana (pictured right) has been in the vanguard of virtuoso drummers trying to invent a new language on the instrument and this was emphatically on display over the course of two creative sets marked with verve and precision.

“There are some great guys out there doing some innovative things on the drums”. This was Steve Gadd responding to my question about the health of acoustic music in a digital age (JJ February 2016). The first of three drummers he mentioned was Mark Guiliana – “I’ve heard him play and he’s great”.

So it was no surprise to see on stage just four drums and three cymbals. Like the very best, that was all he needed, and he exploited the restrictions of the minimal kit to great effect.

He has assembled a conventional acoustic line-up of tenor sax, piano and bass, wanting to explore music quite different compositionally from much of his other work in rock or his explorations of electronic music and processing. This has created all sorts of new possibilities and his American musicians - Jason Rigby on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and Chris Morrissey on bass - interacted seamlessly in a performance where each contributed hugely to the collective performance. No stars here, which is refreshing.

The evening was devoted to playing music from the group’s new CD, Jersey, proudly referencing Guiliana’s hometown state in the US. These are not tunes in the conventional sense of there being a formal structure. Most were open-ended and built up layer by layer, solo by solo. Some started with a simple three- or four-note fragment of a tune on piano or tenor which was then developed rhythmically and melodically into a more complex sound tableau. Or Guiliana would start by beating out a slow march tempo with a single bass-drum note, joined by staccato single notes on piano from the irrepressible Almazan, whose percussive attack provided the perfect foil for the drums. Rigby, too, was able to use the horn to accentuate rhythm as much as tonality – or frequently atonality.

The frequent change-ups in the tunes from fast to slow tempo and back felt so natural. These pacing shifts characterised the music throughout, giving the music much of its vitality. What adds so much defining character to this quartet and was such a pleasant surprise is how many of the improvisations naturally progress towards free jazz, where each musician came into his own in further demonstrating their qualities as highly sensitive and talented soloists. No surprise then, how well these four have gelled into a formidable unit.

Driving triple-time intros with the feel of a runaway express train suddenly gave way to slow and quiet passages, where piano would be left with bass or tenor with whispering drums. One drum intro recalled the unmistakeable spirit and tonality of Elvin Jones, with Guiliana laying down different time signatures to a constant cymbal pulse, using every part of the sticks and drum surfaces.

Fast samba and slow tango rhythms provided yet more colour. There was even a slow raga, which Guiliana sat out in a meditative position at the back of the stage. Chris Morrissey’s The Mayor Of Rotterdam began with a long snare roll, precursor to another Latin-tinted ensemble tune. Long Branch, a new town in New Jersey, was set up by a short drum solo, which accelerated into a fast samba driven by lightning-fast ride cymbals and rim-shots, with Almazan’s tango piano riffs.

The quartet ended with Where Are We Now? which closes the CD and was written by David Bowie, for whom Guiliana was drummer on Blackstar, his final album. Fittingly, this was a slow march, building to a crescendo then fading to black and accentuated by mallets and sticks replaced by hand drumming. The encore closed a high-quality performance with a fast improvised duet between tenor and drums and another cleverly conceived sudden ending.

Photo by Shervin Lainez

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