The New Cool: Mark Guiliana, Drummer Up Front

May 26, 2017

When a friend recently told me that drummer Mark Guiliana is not just swinging through the Northwest with saxman Donny McCaslin's group next month, he's also bringing his own band to town this fall, it was juicy news indeed.

Guiliana is one of the most beloved drummers in modern jazz, or as the New York Times wrote, he's "a drummer around whom a cult of admiration has formed."

His first album with his early band Heernt was released barely a decade ago, and today Guiliana seems to be everywhere. He was seen on the Grammy Awards stage with McCaslin's group accepting awards for their work on David Bowie's final album, "Blackstar" (the band's new album, "Beyond Now," is a tribute to the pop star), and his tours with soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello, rapper Matisyahu, jazz singer Gretchen Parlato (his wife), guitarist Lionel Loueke and others have taken him around the world.

My first exposure to the drummer was the duet project Mehliana with pianist Brad Mehldau featured on mostly electric keyboards on their amazing 2014 album "Taming the Dragon." The collection of beats propelling Mehldau's wash of electronics was a perfect blend of organic sounds and electronic precision, Guiliana's technical skills allow him to play with the exacting consistency of a drum machine while allowing for the freedom of improvisations from groovy to free.

In the 21st century, when electronic rhythms dominate popular music, this is a skill set that many modern jazz drummers are desperately trying to achieve.

Mark Guiliana points to a diverse collection of musical heroes, from jazz greats Elvin Jones and Art Blakey to electronic and hip hop giants J Dilla and Aphex Twin. He enjoys variety of musical styles and settings, a repeated phrase in several interviews with Guiliana is "challenging musical situation," which has led to his popularity among fellow players. He travels with just his cymbals, he says, preferring to take on the challenge of playing whichever drums each strange club on the road has to offer.

Alongside his busy work as a sideman, Mark Guiliana's been leading his own groups for most of his career. He's also developed a platform for getting his music to his fans, the Beat Music Productions label, which has already produced a half dozen Guiliana-led projects.

Would this upcoming Summertime visit to Seattle suggest a new release is soon to follow? One thing we know, Guiliana's rhythm is gonna get you.

Dig his casual, in-the-pocket groove on "Sassyassed Sassafrass" from the "Mehliana" album on this week's New Cool show, as well as previews of the double-CD release party at the Royal Room June 1 with the Sam Boshnack Quintet and Duende Libre.

And while you're enjoying a rare sunny Memorial Day weekend, head to the KNKX New Cool stage at the (free!) NW Folklife Festival Saturday afternoon with live performances from D'Vonne Lewis Limited Edition, Velocity, and The New Triumph. See you at the Fountain Lawn Stage!

The New Cool airs Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.