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Morgan Guerin: So Many Instruments, So Little Time

The 22-year-old artist takes musical versatility to new levels

Morgan Guerin
Morgan Guerin in his Brooklyn home studio (photo: Bill Douthart)

You’re probably familiar with the cartoons that depict biological evolution as a parade of walking figures: crouching chimpanzee on the left, stooped humanoid and stocky Neanderthal in the middle, modern human on the right. The cover of the debut album by Morgan Guerin, The Saga, released in 2016 when he was 18, depicts an analogous musical evolution. On the left is a toddler in diapers holding drum sticks half as long as he is. To his right is a grade-school student holding a cymbal and an alto saxophone. Next over is a middle-school student in shades with a keyboard in his right hand and an electric bass in his left. At the far right is a high-school student with drumsticks pinned under his right elbow as he plays a tenor sax.

It’s an accurate description of the musician’s early years, as he kept finding instruments that he wanted to learn and master. On that debut album, he played tenor, alto, EWI, flute, piano, organ, keyboards, drums, and percussion. On his latest album, 2020’s The Saga III, he plays all the above plus bass clarinet, soprano sax, and electric bass. The latter, though a late addition to his arsenal, has brought him the most attention, because that’s the instrument he plays in Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science.

“To write on each instrument and play on each instrument,” he says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, “is something I’ve become more and more comfortable with. I’m just curious about what’s happening on each of them. If I think of a phrase for a particular instrument, I love being able to get the idea down immediately. I know I’m barely scratching the surface, because there’s so much to be learned on each. That’s why people focus on one instrument and spend their lives mastering it. I’m not a master; I’m a student on everything. But every time someone tells me something about an instrument, I want to dig in and learn everything about it.”

Here Guerin sums up the quandary that many musicians must wrestle with: How do you balance the desire to learn as many instruments as possible with the desire to get really good on one of them? After all, there are only so many waking hours in a day. While most musicians focus on one particular tool—especially when they perform in public—Guerin is at the other end of the spectrum. Like Prince and Stevie Wonder, he has become proficient, if not necessarily virtuosic, on a large ensemble’s worth of instruments.

“I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules,” Carrington says. “Learning a lot of instruments works for some people, and other people may need to focus on one. This seems to work for him. I like the way he approaches each instrument differently. He realizes that you play EWI differently than you do tenor, and tenor differently than alto. The tenor is my favorite horn instrument, but I like what he does on EWI; he gets some neat synthesizer sounds out of it.”

Between The Saga and The Saga III came The Saga II in 2017, and the trilogy forms what Guerin calls “an audio autobiography.” They trace his development as a player and composer, in terms not only of the instruments he’s mastered but also of the influences he’s absorbed. He cites Wayne Shorter as a role model—as much for his synthesizer-backed albums like Joy Ryder and Atlantis as for piano-backed projects like Miles Smiles and Night Dreamer, as much for Shorter’s borrowings from classical music and sci-fi literature as for his contributions to modal jazz and fusion.  

“I’m not a master; I’m a student on everything. But every time someone tells me something about an instrument, I want to dig in and learn everything about it.”

During elementary school, Guerin grew up around the modern jazz, traditional blues, and classic R&B of New Orleans. During high school in the 2010s, he was surrounded by the hip-hop and neo-soul of Atlanta. During college, it was the post-jazz innovations of New York City. He integrated all this into a music that’s less like a nightclub blowing session and more like a futuristic movie soundtrack. On all three of his albums, he layers multiple instruments—most of them self-played—that suggest bleeping and whizzing machinery of galactic exploration.

“Sci-fi is something I’ve always been fascinated by—the themes, the colors,” he acknowledges. “That comes from inside my own head, from wanting to imagine a better world. The world we have, especially now, isn’t ideal, and we’re lucky to have something like music to navigate new possibilities. With this third record, I wanted the ’70s to meet 2020, I wanted the early modular synthesizers that Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder used to meet today’s digital recording.”

Voice is an important color in Guerin’s music, but more often as a wordless instrument than as a singer delivering lyrics. In his compositions, themes bud, then bloom, then twist away like flowers seeking more sun. There are few traditional solos but lots of ensemble give-and-take.

“I don’t like soloing on my own music,” he confesses; “it’s not something that interests me. I have no problem soloing on someone else’s music, but with mine, I don’t want it to be about the solos; I want it to be about the compositions. I’m always trying to stray from the expected, to branch away from that pure jazz category. It often seems selfish to solo.”

The latest album opens with “Fantastic Planet,” named after the groundbreaking, synth-scored, 1973 animated sci-fi film. The track begins with a Prophet Rev 2, Arp Omni, Fender Rhodes, and EWI 4000s bending their voices into the slow-moving, whooshing chords of a spaceship gliding through an unidentified galaxy. Countering this is a busy, funky bass’n’drums that sounds like the ship’s pulsing engine room and chattering crew. Guerin plays all these instruments himself, but he adds Safa’s wordless vocals to the gliding theme and Pele-Or Greenberg’s percussion to the percolating bottom.

The virtuosic solos you expect from a jazz record are few and far between, but the music is wonderfully visual, prompting the listener to supply the missing movie. It’s also full of strong melodic material, especially on tracks such as “Flashback” and “Notion,” offering echoes of Wonder’s mid-career peak and Shorte’s late-career renaissance.

“I’m a huge Wayne Shorter fan,” Guerin gushes. “I didn’t get into him until high school, because I didn’t understand where he was coming from. But when I did, I found he was always reaching beyond the saxophone, beyond the changes, even in the ’50s. I like the way he bridged the gap between the classical world and jazz, especially on Emanon—that’s a huge record for me. But I like all of it: the quint stuff with Miles, Weather Report, Native Dancer and High Life. Before Wayne, who was playing soprano sax in arenas?”

Near the end of the new album, “Weightless,” another tune with a sci-fi title, opens with a piano-arpeggio theme that suggests a bank of computers running through their programs. Special guest Matthew Stevens, Guerin’s bandmate in Social Science, adapts that theme to his electric guitar and elaborates on it. The result is not so much a solo devoted to speed and improvisation as it is a patient working out of the theme’s possibilities.

“Morgan just came to my studio in Brooklyn,” Stevens explains, “and we recorded the guitar there in about an hour right before a rehearsal with Terri. We just experimented with reinforcing different parts of the song and together decided that the way to go was to have the guitar play that lead melody. We experimented with some sounds and ideas on the outro, wound up with what’s on the record, and went for a quick bite before rehearsal.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.