Jazz aficionados in for a treat

Drummers Mark Giuliana, who performed on David Bowie’s last album, and Antonio Sanchez will be among the performers at a star-studded 27th edition of the Malta Jazz Festival at Ta’ Liesse in Valletta. Ramona Depares catches up with them.

Mark Giuliana

Mark GiulianaMark Giuliana

What made you fall in love with the drums?

I started playing drums when I was 15, and really in the beginning I honestly didn’t have any expectations, it was just another activity to keep me busy. A few months into my lessons with my first teacher, I realised I was really was enjoying all the work that was going into studying the instrument and I just stuck to it. I quickly realised this would be a special relationship and something I could continue in a serious way.

There was a time when jazz and young people, even genuine music-lovers, simply didn’t mix. Now, things seem to be changing. To what do you attribute this?

Young people and jazz. I don’t really think about genres or lines between genres. I think that if the music is captivating and presented in an honest way, there will always be people who feel a connection to it. I think that’s the most important thing when we start to talk about stereotypes of genres, that is, when it starts to create divisions bet­ween listeners. I have a wide variety of interests and I love  different kinds of music but the common ground, and foundation of the music I love, is full of passion and presented in a committed and honest way.

And why does jazz have a bit of a reputation as ‘the bad guy’ in music? Many claim it’s inaccessible/boring, and so on…

I can’t agree that jazz has the rep of being the bad guy in music. It is difficult for me to reply to that question.

How did your interest in jazz start? And what has the experience been like of going from being re­jected at jazz school to being awarded a grammy for your band Mehliana?

When I was in high school I was exposed to different styles of music, especially in my drum lessons. And when I hear jazz, specifically Tony Williams and his playing with Miles Davis’ second great quintet, I feel in love immediately with the element of improvisation, the risk in the way they were taking chances and trusting in each other and seeing to which heights the music could go.

What was your experience working on Blackstar like? Can you describe the creative pro­cess that went in it? Did you have any inkling of the significance the album would gather?

Working on Blackstar was absolutely incredible. It was a true honour to work alongside David. He was so kind, generous, smart and funny, I really can’t say enough nice things about him. It was truly an exceptional experience, I learned so much and it was a very collaborative environment. He was very open to our ideas, wanted us to make changes, and I hope you can hear that on the recording.

What is your reaction to films like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash? Have they had any effect on the genre and the scene?

To me it is just a movie. I really like sports, I’m a sports fan. To me, that movie represented more a sport than music. Movies can portray things in many different ways but I  myself haven’t had any experience even remotely close to what was presented in the film.

You are known for your im­provisation work. Does the audience’s reaction influence what you’re doing on stage? How does it improve your work?

I love to improvise. It is one of the things that gives me the most joy while playing music. It relies on being in the moment, truly listening and trying to work together with the other musicians to make the best decision for the music at each moment. I love that feeling, and every night it is an opportunity to strive, to make the best music.

You also own your own label, Beat House Productions. Which aspect of music do you prefer? The playing or the producing?

I have a label. Beat Music Productions. It was simply a way for me to create an environment in which I could release any music I was making whenever I wanted to. It was more of a freedom to release different projects. I absolutely prefer the playing.

Is this your first time performing in Malta? What are you expecting?

Not my first time. I was in Malta a few years ago with Mehliana, a duo project with Brad Mehldau, and on that same night I played with Kneebody. It was great fun to get to play the set with Kneebody, and then to follow that with Mehliana. I had a great time and really look forward to coming back with my jazz quartet.

And what can the audience expect?

We will be here with the jazz quartet, we will be playing our original music, we have a record from a couple of years ago called Family First but we also have a new album coming out in September called Jersey. So we will be playing songs from both of those recordings. Its Fabian Almazan on piano, Jason Rigby on saxophone and Chris Morrissey on bass. Those are always the guys and we’re very much a band and am grateful to have them with me because they are incredible musicians and people. I can’t wait to play in Malta again. See you very soon.

Antonio Sanchez

Antonio SanchezAntonio Sanchez

When did you know you wanted to be a drummer?

I was five years old and I saw a drum set that a family friend owned. It was love at first sight!

You’re known for running a tight balancing act between improvisation and composition – how does it work out? Which parts do you prefer?

I always like to have a healthy balance between the two. I love having enough written material to guide me but enough open sections to be able to experiment and discover new avenues.

How does the improvisation experience work out?

I like to surround myself with very capable and daring players that know how to improvise with no ego. Improvisation is at its best when you have musicians who are team players. My band is a great example of that.

Does your audience’s reaction influence it?

Sure. The energy (or lack of) that an audience gives you is extremely important. A performance is never a one-way street. Listeners are a huge part of the equation.

What was your experience writing the score on Birdman like? What were the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge was how to convey as much emotion as possible with just the drum set. I wanted to be as expressive as possible and make it an indispensable element of the film.

How did the creative process with director Alejandro Gonzalez work?

We got together in a studio in NY and worked off the script. The movie was just starting to get shot so there was nothing for us to look at yet. He ex­plain­ed every scene to me in great detail and I just improvised the whole thing based on what he had just told me. Once the movie was finished I redid the whole thing while looking at the images. What ended up in the movie is a combination of both sessions.

Do you feel your work on the film made your music more accessible to a wider base of people?

Sure. To be part of an Oscar-winning film has been incredibly helpful.

Would you consider scoring another movie?

I already have done two other movies and there’s talk about a few different projects. I have also just wrapped up scoring the first season of Get Shorty, a TV series based on the movie of the same name that opens in August. I am really excited about this new facet of my career.

What do you listen to when you’re not playing?

All kinds of music. Electronic, classical, choral, jazz, rock, funk, soul and everything in between.

You’ve had a lot of collaborations with other amazing musicians – which of these stand out the most for you?

Working with Pat Metheny has always been amazing. He’s such an incredible artist. Michael Brecker was another artist I was very lucky to have collaborated with and recorded with. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden… so many.

What’s next in the pipeline?

I’m releasing a solo record in September where I engineered, performed, produced and composed everything from beginning to end. It’s called Bad Hombre and it’s acoustic drums and electronics. It’s kind of an experi­mental record for me.

I will be releasing a Big Band record of my music arranged by Vince Mendoza with the WDR Big Band next year and will be recording the next Migration record in January next year for a later release. The second season of Get Shorty is also in the pipeline and there are tours with my band and Pat Metheny also in the near future, plus live scoring events where I do Birdman Live. It’s a lot of fun.

Programme: Mark Giuliana Jazz Quartet will perform at Ta’ Liesse, Valleta, on Friday at 8pm, while Antonio Sanchez and Migration will perform, also at Ta’ Liesse, on Saturday at 8pm.

Tickets can be bought from https://www.shows . Visit for more information.


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