Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters
Mark Guiliana: A Jazzer For Today
By Fred Gretsch
I want to start this article about Gretsch drum artist Mark Guiliana with a quote from a review of his 2013 recording, A Form of Truth, taken from Relix magazine: “There are musicians that the general public recognizes for their greatness, and then there are the musicians that other musicians stand in awe of. Drummer Mark Guiliana falls squarely into the second category.”
What places Mark at the forefront of today’s jazz drummers is the fact that he combines a genuine respect and reverence for the artistry of historic icons like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach with a totally fresh and contemporary approach all his own. Blending impressive technical skills on acoustic drums with electronic sounds and processing, Mark can—and does—cover all musical contingencies.
In addition to playing in his own quartet, in his band Beat Music, and in an electronic duo dubbed Mehliana (with keyboardist Brad Mehldau), Mark is a first-call drummer for artists as varied as Avishai Cohen, MeShell N’degeocello, Matisyahu, Gretchen Parlato, and the group Now Vs. Now. In 2014 Mark had the opportunity to play on the late David Bowie’s final album: Blackstar (released on January 8 of this year).
Noted for his ever-changing musical personas, Bowie’s last turn took him into acoustic jazz—albeit with a dark and moody tone—and he wanted a rhythm section that could support his concept. So he called on Mark, with the able assistance of bassist Tim Lefebvre.
Reviews of the album have repeatedly mentioned the contributions made by Mark and Tim, as with this one from Billboard magazine: “Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs’ harmonically twisty byways. Special credit goes to bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie’s grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk.”
The Wall Street Journal added: “Mr. Guiliana’s staccato drumming pieces the band’s moody wash of sound under Mr. Bowie’s voice as he sings an ominous tale. With Blackstar the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”
In 2015 Mark “returned to his roots,” recording an acoustic-jazz album called Family First with his quartet. Commenting on that album, Rhythm magazine said: “Mark is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new jazzers out there, and after his more electronic-style recordings of previous years, in 2015 he embraced the classic quartet format for some truly brilliant small-group jazz playing.” The magazine went on to name Mark as one of the top jazz drummers of the year.
In addition to his performing skills, Mark is a dedicated educator, eager to share his distinctive musical concepts with other drummers. He conducts frequent workshops in the New York City area, as well as clinics in various locations around the country. He can also be contacted for private lessons through his Web site, MarkGuiliana.com.
On July 30 of 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, visiting several sites that mark the evolution of the Gretsch company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later. I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their history. I’m happy to say that Mark Guiliana was among that group. Following the tour, Mark had these kind words to say:
“I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred Gretsch was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. I specifically remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool.”
I’ll conclude this piece in the same manner as I began it: with a quote, this time from Modern Drummer magazine’s November 2014 cover story on Mark. In it, they refer to him as “the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now—and where it could be headed.”
Here is Mark performing during his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, held this past November in San Antonio, Texas.
In this clip Mark walks us through some tips and tricks for emulating drum samples with an acoustic kit and few toys.
Here is Mark with Beat Music, at New York City’s Zinc Bar in 2014.