If you thought Mark Guiliana's new group, Space Heroes, had something to do with astronauts, think again.
“I get asked about the name a lot—it just refers to the space within the music,” Guiliana explains. “In a jazz quartet the piano by definition occupies quite a bit of space, and I wanted to explore what would happen and where the music would go if we removed that particular voice.”
His ensemble instead features a frontline of two horns—saxophonists Jason Rigby and Mike Lewis—with Chris Morrissey on double bass, and they’ll be making their Houston debut this Saturday as part of the Da Camera jazz series.
The last time Guiliana was in Houston was back in 2004, when he was on tour as a sideman with Israeli jazz legend Avishai Cohen. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the most influential drummers of his generation, known not only for his astounding technical precision and sophisticated approach to rhythm, but also the adventurous way he’s redefining the vernacular of the instrument. He’s made a name not only in jazz but also progressive rock and alternative, backing names like soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello, Dhafer Youssef, and hip-hop and reggae artist Matisyahu. He's also collaborated with Donny McCaslin, jazz piano virtuoso Brad Mehldau in the electronica-washed duo Mehliana, and, most notably, helped shape the sound as drummer for David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar (scooping up a Grammy in the process).
Truthfully, it's hard to define Guiliana’s style because it’s constantly evolving. “I was 15 when I started playing the drums, and that was in the mid '90s, so it was kind of the music that was on the radio at the time (Nirvana, Sound Garden, Pearl Jam) that brought me to the instrument.” Shortly after that, he was introduced to the nuanced beauty and spontaneity of jazz, from which he built his career. “That kind of took over for a bit—and similarly a bit later with electronic music. Those are the easiest chunks to isolate. I’m just trying to absorb as much music as I can.”
Last week Guiliana was in Cuba, where he heard very little drum set playing, mostly a wide variety of percussion. “It had me rethinking everything I had ever practiced,” he says, chuckling. “Within all these worlds there's such a wide variety, and I'm always trying to allow them to coexist in a natural and organic way.”
Space Heroes is his newest project, blending electronica-inspired grooves with open-ended improvisation. In some ways, it’s an exploration of the sonic possibilities between his two current creative outlets: the Jazz Quartet, an acoustic group made up of saxophone, piano, double bass, and drums, and Beat Music, an electronic experiment that’s spawned multiple recording sessions and live performances, a sound world of window-rattling grooves, electronic sampling, and deep, spacey dubs. “Those were the two pillars, quite far apart from each other, and I was curious to find something that could straddle both of those energies,” he says.
The absence of the keyboard in Space Heroes opens up freedom but also challenges; each member has heightened responsibility in supporting the other and behaving as soloists, and there’s the chance to constantly take on different roles. The instrumentation allows for a reinvention of the music from night to night, and the irony about preparing for live performances—especially when it involves improvisation—is knowing that the moment will just disappear. “We have no other choice but to give everything we have in that moment,” Guiliana says. “It's a way to try to truly make the most of it. I feel like that outside of music too—because if you're not present, then you're not improvising. You’re not really in that moment.”
Mark Guiliana Space Heroes, March 23. Tickets from $37.50. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-524-5050. More info and tickets at dacamera.com.