The phrase “rising star” gets used way too often. However, if ever it could be applied in an apt way, then it can be used with sincerity when talking about drummer/composer/band leader Mark Guiliana. “A leader worth following. A musician with vision – and beats.” said Jazz Times. “A drummer around whom a cult of admiration has formed.” said The New York Times. “He’s the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now – and where it could be headed.” said Modern Drummer Magazine. Having earned an enviable reputation as a sideman, performing regularly with, among others, Avishai Cohen, Gretchen Parlato and Meshell Ndegeocelli, Guiliana has recently gone on to perform with David Bowie, founded two bands; Beat Music and Heernt, and launched his own independent record label “Beat Music Productions” as an outlet for his diverse musical vision. Add to this his Grammy nominated duo partnership with jazz icon Brad Mehldau, “Mehliana”, and we appear to have something of a jazz visionary in the making. With the release of Guiliana’s Jazz Quartet’s first outing “Family First”, I think we can now say the star has well and truly risen.
“Family First” is an acoustic jazz album of such power, virtuosity, depth and poise, that it leaves this listener in genuine awe, and extremely happy. This is what jazz is all about. Free spirited, emotionally engaging and written and performed with a rarely heard skill and mastery. The quartet is: Mark Guiliana on drums, Chris Morrissey on bass, Shai Maestro on piano and Jason Rigby on saxophone. Together they perform nine tracks, eight of these being Guiliana original compositions, plus one incredible Bob Marley cover/interpretation. The quartet are long-time musical collaborators and good friends, and the chemistry and artistry shown throughout this album shines through. Guiliana explains; “This music really highlights the strong bonds and sense of brotherhood and family that I share with these guys.” He continues; “I’ve been lucky to have been building a great musical bond with each of them over the last decade.” There is certainly a sense of togetherness on this recording, one which delivers cohesion and a fearless sense of adventure that lifts the music to the lofty place that it resides.
Guiliana’s compositional skills come to the fore right from the off. “One Month” opens the album and is a tour de force in itself. What I love about this tune is how it hits you both between the ears and deep inside the soul as it pulsates with excitement before changing pace, drawing breath, and building up again with such joyous skill. Jason Rigby’s sax playing on this track and indeed throughout the whole album, is nothing short of astonishing, being both lyrically brilliant and touchingly soulful. “Abed” drives forcefully and swings with fervour and highlights why Guiliana is so highly thought of as a drummer. The deep intensity of “2014” reminds me of the feel of the music heard on Brad Mehldau’s much underrated “Highway Rider.” There’s such a strong emotional pull to this music, this is a ballad that delivers real melancholic beauty. “Long Branch” is a breathtaking composition. Once again all 4 musicians are in full swing, with pianist Shai Maestro proving how true class shines through. For me, his skill, touch and virtuosity outshine many of his peers and contemporaries in this field. The Bob Marley tune “Johnny Was” is performed here as a thought-provoking, subtle, deeply moving piece of music. Once again the natural understanding between the musicians is incredible. They seem to play in such an assured manner that this allows them to create an electric, spine tingling energy even in the spaces between the notes. The somber mood lifts as “From You” brings us back into daylight with its warm breeze and clear air. Reminiscent of an 80’s/90’s Brecker classic, the tune drifts effortlessly, singing as it goes. Chris Morrisey’s contemplative, musing bass forms the intro to “The Importance of Brothers”. The tune develops into a march before leading us into the Coltrane-esque beginnings of “Welcome Home”. Beautiful chords and lush soundscapes create a gorgeous, uplifting atmosphere before the track moves into its full, rich melody. Guiliana’s compositions are stories that unfold with a vision and a purpose and the mood changes within these stories portray life itself; sometimes mournful, sometimes sweet and liberating. There are so many moments on this album where the emotion is at such a high point that shivers flow through the body creating a deep felt intense experience that takes the listener to a place well beyond the music itself. The last few minutes of “Welcome Home”, leading into the final piece, the title track “Family First” sum this up perfectly. I don’t mind admitting I was moved to tears at this point, this is just so stunningly beautiful.
In summary, I cannot find enough superlatives to describe “Family First”. And if by the end of 2015 this isn’t my personal album of the year, I can’t wait to hear the one that is.