It seems a little quaint to refer to poll-topping percussionist Mark Guiliana as a “jazz drummer,” as his expansive palette includes everything from standard trap kit to drum machine to Mellotron* and, in this video, what appears to be a hand-held voice recorder. Among heaps of other cross-genre collaborations, his eclectic resume includes an electrified duo with famed keyboardist Brad Mehldau as well as a, seat at the drum throne for David Bowie’s Grammy-winning swan song Blackstar. His group Beat Music is an homage to contemporary electronic music that owes as much to Aphex Twin as it does to fusion drum superstar Tony Williams.
This electric eclecticism is why it’s a bit surprising to see Guiliana fronting the acoustic group SPACE HEROES for his forthcoming Houston appearance for Da Camera on March 23. Mellotrons and cassette recorders aside, SPACE HEROES’ lineup of drums, bass, and saxes evokes not only Paul Desmond’s silky acrobatics with Dave Brubeck, but also Elvin Jones’ steamrolling energy in John Coltrane’s classic quartet.
Before hopping a plane to Ecuador, Mark kindly consented to answer a few questions for me about his latest stylistic perambulations and to clear up exactly what’s going on with that Mellotron.
Byline Houston: In the course of a performance, SPACE HEROES passes through a ton of reference points, from ’50s West Coast combos to Miles Davis’ groups with Tony Williams to Sun Ra. Is there any jazz language you feel particularly fluent in with this project, or any that you avoid?
Mark Guiliana: We’re absolutely pulling from a wide variety of influences — all of which you mentioned are accurate to a certain degree. Compositionally, my goal was to make sure there was plenty of room inside the compositions for the guys to be able to improvise and express themselves. One of the luxuries of this band was that I knew the lineup long before the music existed. So, writing with these guys in mind, and trying to play to their strengths, sometimes that will lead us into a Sun Ra energy, sometimes that will lead us into a Coltrane-inspired energy, sometimes a more melancholic, singer-songwriter energy.
I can’t say there is particularly one influence to lean on, and I guess I can’t say there’s one to avoid either. But it absolutely is a goal to try to just be as honest as we can, and to try to really be as open to each other as possible. The one nice thing is that with so much room inside of each composition, from night to night, some songs can be wildly different, which is particularly exciting — to be on the road, playing a bunch of nights in a row, and letting the music guide us.
Byline Houston: Texas has a strong and varied tradition of players ranging from bar-walkers to outer-space navigators. To what extent do you feel the blues informs your music? Are you inspired at all by free and avant-garde jazz, and if so, in what way?
Guiliana: [The blues is] certainly in there somehow — maybe less so the musical details of the blues, but I would hope the emotive side. I think of the blues as just about as direct a line there can be from one’s personal experience to the music. That’s certainly always a goal of any music I’m making, but particularly in this band, I think there’s a lot of vulnerability and a lot of care in the presentation, and I think that is also true in blues.
I’m big-time inspired by the free, avant-garde scene, and of my own music, my own projects. This is the one that most allows that influence to come out. Maybe it’s present in other groups, but in a more subtle way. In this group, [it’s] a mindset as much as it is a genre or a stylistic choice or sound. I tried to create an environment where if any one of us really thinks the music should go somewhere, let’s go — even if it is drastically different from ways we’ve played it in the past. So I think it’s more of that avant-garde mentality that we try to bring to the music.
Byline Houston: You’ve been praised for your ability to fluidly navigate both electric and acoustic sounds. What attracts you to electric sounds, and why did you choose to focus on a more “traditional” jazz lineup for this project?
Guiliana: I love electronic sounds; I’m heavily inspired by a lot of electronic music and programmed music. It’s fun to hear carefully crafted ideas in a more electronic situation that might not be really technically possible to achieve on the instrument. But in the pursuit of those kinds of ideas, well, [laughing] it’s humbling to fail in those pursuits. But it’s exciting to see maybe where you end up instead. For the case of this band, I already have an electronic outlet called Beat Music, and we actually have a record coming out next month, so that’s where those ideas have a place to live. I wanted SPACE HEROES to have a bit more of the outlet for the acoustic ideas, and those sounds.
Byline Houston: Ornette Coleman famously eschewed the piano, and John Coltrane pointedly eliminated one (or told pianist McCoy Tyner to drop out every so often) during a number of his later recordings. Does SPACE HEROES always perform without a pianist, and if so, what’s the reason for that? When you bring in electric keyboards, what places are you hoping to get to that you can’t reach with the acoustic quartet lineup?
Guiliana: No piano or guitar, no chordal instrument was huge. Part of the inspiration for the name [SPACE HEROES] is yearning for more space inside the music, and sometimes a chordal instrument — and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just an observation — has a tendency to occupy quite a bit of space. So I was very curious how removing that element would affect the music, and affect our way of playing and our way of listening to each other and the way we improvise. It’s been very, very rewarding. It’s been a really exciting new palette to explore.
And yeah, when I played keys on the one tune, I played the Mellotron — it’s a ballad, and I wrote it actually with that particular instrument in mind. The Mellotron, as I’m sure you know, [uses] samples of other instruments. The sound I use on that is a combination of alto flute and marimba, and it’s nice you can blend those two sounds. So as I was working on that piece, [and] the more I heard that sound, playing that harmony, it was very difficult to imagine it with another sound — so that was the incentive to bring that instrument.
Byline Houston: To focus on the drums specifically, how do you feel your electronic influences inform your acoustic playing? I hear an interesting use of drive and repetition, but I’m curious how much of that comes from electronics and how much from the African diaspora.
Guiliana: I touched on this drum influence — how trying to bring electronic textures to the acoustic drum set inspires me to look for new sounds and really new ways of playing. It’s a really great way to wake me up and get out of the habits or the things that I consistently reach for.
The use of drive and repetition — I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and this could be a very, very long conversation. I think both of your references are accurate — folkloric African music [uses] quite a bit of repetition. But there’s always certainly some improvised elements, and most importantly, great spirit in the execution of that repetition — it is not a passive, repetitive gesture. Every time the loop begins, I think of it as consciously, intentionally choosing to play that same thing again, which is quite different from maybe a drum machine — which is if you hit play, it will simply play until you hit stop, or until it runs out of batteries. That’s passive repetition, which we can be guilty of as people too. I think it’s just more [about] the chasing the trance element with great intention.
Byline Houston: Is there any message you have for your Texas fans who might not know what to expect from your Da Camera performance?
Guiliana: Nothing really about the music, just gratitude in general. It’s my first time in Houston as a leader, presenting my own music. This project is very close to my heart, so I’m excited to play the music, and it’s always such a gift to get to play with these guys. So just really, thank you in advance to anyone who can come out. We will absolutely be grateful and excited to play for you.
*[Note: According to Wikipedia, “The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England, in 1963.” Contemporary iterations of the instrument rely on digital samples of the manufacturer’s extensive magnetic tape library to reproduce its unique sounds.]