Mark Guiliana Quartet Album Release at Blue Whale by Anja Wade

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. It’s 8:30 PM on a Friday night in October and our Uber driver drops us off at a plaza. There are signs for sushi, small boutiques, shabu shabu, and Korean barbeque. It’s balmy outside, and the palm trees in the distance cast shadows against a lavender-orange night sky. The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet is slated to play at Blue Whale, a popular jazz club.

We make our way into a courtyard and take an elevator to the third floor. Blue Whale has an unassuming fa├žade, a minimalist entrance that stands humbly next to its neighboring restaurants. It would be easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. But many people know where to look, and many people are hip to Mark Guiliana. For good reason. He’s hailed for his hard bop drumming sensibilities and adept rhythmic sophistication. It’s a sophistication that lets him draw from diverse genres of music to create his own distinct sound.

Critics recognize Guiliana as a member of today’s jazz vanguard – players who are well-versed in the jazz tradition yet constantly push the envelope with innovation and creativity. In short, Guiliana’s a tour de force. His latest endeavor, the album entitled “Jersey,” debuted on September 29th. We’re here at Blue Whale for his album release party – a night spent listening to new music from the drummer and his trailblazing peers.

We make our way into the venue, and I take a good look at my surroundings. Immediately I notice the sleek architecture and furnishings. Past the bar, the audience sits on folding chairs and cube-shaped upholstered benches. A projector lights up the ceiling with a Rumi quote about spirituality and listening. The stage awaits its musicians with a bright blue background that reminds me of a Rothko painting.

We choose our seats and I scan the crowd. The vibe is mostly serious and studied. I can tell I’m with fellow jazz musicians who are here to focus on the music – not merely to paint the town red. It’s quiet, and I take time to reflect on the venue in relative silence. There are telltale signs of avid jazz fellowship in the audience. I spot occasional newsboy caps, reserved demeanor, and hairdos just messy enough that they speak to an artist’s lifestyle. It’s the look of a dedicated crowd used to working long hours and grabbing a sleep-deprived coffee just before an event or gig. The venue fills up quickly, and by the time the first set starts, the house is packed.

The quartet takes the stage and the first tune starts off with a bang. It’s a churning, insistent locomotive of percussive texture and rhythm. I’m taken by the music as well as the excellent sound engineering. Not only does the venue itself have great acoustics, but the levels and balance of the mix are spot on. I’m nothing short of grateful. Jazz in particular can take a hit when performed in a venue with shoddy sound quality. There's nothing worse than soaking up musical brilliance in a space which doesn’t do the music justice. This is the opposite. The music and the venue's acoustics are both exceptional.

The show continues with composition after composition of rhythmic and harmonic ingenuity. In addition to Guiliana on drums, the quartet features Jason Rigby on tenor saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Chris Morrissey on bass. These are studied disciples of jazz, musicians who are first and foremost well-versed in the tradition. There’s a fearless abandon of convention in their sound, though, and it’s clear they are unapologetic about exploring new ground. They do so freely.

With technical precision, the quartet uses odd meters, augmentation, dissonance, and modal pedals. Tight grooves and fantastic ensemble dynamics speak to the quartet's spontaneity and effulgence. These are clearly musicians who have spent a lot of time together deeply immersed in the music. They pull from diverse lexicons, as evidenced by a Bowie cover included in the set. (Guiliana worked with Bowie on the album Blackstar).

My mind drifts to Coltrane, Radiohead, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Art Blakey throughout the show. But there is something indisputably original about the quartet’s sound. There are head nods to artists and traditions that I have heard before, but the use of familiar elements is new. It is a collage informed by personal influence, discipline, and keen compositional insight. The musicians have masterfully harnessed jazz at its most furious, fiery pace to deliver an art that is all their own. There are quiet moments too, ones that captivate the audience so intensely you could hear a pin drop. I learn later that the show sold out and I’m not surprised. I leave feeling cleansed, inspired, and moved.

In a world of digital soundbites and instant gratification, the venue and the quartet offer creative depth. I intend to purchase the quartet’s latest album and keep these musicians on my radar. Their work represents the leading edge of jazz today, with unabated commitment to artistry.

Photo Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians

  Anja Wade Copyright 2017