Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet digs deep at Ronnie Scott’s

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For the first time in eleven years, leading US drummer Mark Guiliana returned to Ronnie Scott’s with his new Jazz Quartet, featuring the stellar talents of Jason Rigby, Fabian Almazan and Chris Morrissey. This was no slight return, for the ten-tune set (plus encore) started well and just kept getting better. The set mostly comprised music from Giuliana’s summer release, Family First and the subsequent Family First: The Alternate Takes. The players were on top form, and seemed to feed off the energy of the music as much as the audience did.

Some of the most gripping moments came during the solos, which were inventive and totally individual throughout. ‘The Importance of Brothers’, a tune that alternates between a twisted civil war march theme and episodes of escalating but controlled chaos, was a highlight. Guiliana, who was usually the dominant voice, sat back for much of this number and encouraged his bandmates to go for it. The light touch and tone of Chris Morrissey’s double bass shone out as he took an extended intro solo, gradually beefing up with more aggressive strokes, culminating in an explosive low-end blow. After the head and some dancing articulations from Rigby, Almazan took us into his own world. Playing alone, his fragmented melodies evolved around a rhythmically-frenetic inner pedal and then transformed into a passage not unlike a romantic piano piece, but with contemporary harmonic tensions. A genuine ‘was that pre-composed?’ moment.

ABED’ sawGuiliana stretch out with a long solo, which he later attributed to Elvin Jones’ influence. This statement was remarkable for its emotional expression, not something one typically expects from a drum solo. Astounding technique was displayed and sophisticated rhythmic devices played a significant role, but it was Guiliana’s timing and use of silence in between phrases that made this more than a demonstration of chops. It was spiritual. A high level of energy was present throughout the gig, but solo moments like this one made it tangible. Another such peak was reached again for the encore, ‘BP’ by Rich Hinman. Rigby was in the zone, meditative, bringing this concert to an epic close with beautiful fluid lines and emotive cries; There is something profound about Jason Rigbys sound on the tenor, a tone slightly reminiscent of Coltrane in terms of intensity, but less piercing, more rounded.

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Something must also be said about the compositions and arrangements: The melodies were always lyrical, sometimes plaintive, with one or two exceptions. The simple warmth of pop and folk lyricism ran through the set, emphasised by two covers, ‘Beautiful Child’ by Rufus Wainwright and Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was A Good Man’ (dedicated to the late John Taylor). Of course these were transformed into statements befitting the quartet’s sound, with time changes and dynamic arrangements.

Rhythmic interplay and complex layers are key features of Guilianas style, so these characteristics permeated the entire set, as on Family First. Tradition vs. innovation was a recurring theme, with innovation coming out on top, but not without acknowledging jazz’s rich and varied history; the music is full of surprises, full of complexity in form and content, and in spite of this the transitions were so fluid, even when moving between radically different sections. Sometimes you’d wonder how the music arrived at its current point, so suddenly, yet with such ease. Add to this the fact that Guiliana and his bandmates have a gift for intentionally blurring form, and you have an utterly absorbing, musical experience with beautiful, twists and turns. This outing of the Mark Giuliana Jazz Quartet brought the often-distant languages of jazz (a myriad in itself), electronica and pop together coherently and in a purely acoustic setting. This, plus the deep spiritual vibe, the close-up communication and Guiliana’s drive and imagination leaves only anticipation for what comes next.

– Marlowe Heywood-Thornes

– Photos by Carl Hyde