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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 (photo: Bill Douthart)

The three installments of Guerin’s Saga series trace the first 22 years of his life. The Saga covered his pre-college years, even naming two tracks, “Madeira” and “Sharynwood Drive,” after streets where his extended family lived in Baton Rouge. Another track, “Tabula Rasa,” indicated his willingness to learn new instruments and absorb new influences as if he were a blank slate after a move to Atlanta. The Saga II covered his early college years at the New School in Manhattan. One track, “Lk02,” is titled after his dorm room number.

“The third one,” he says, “has its own set of meanings. It’s kind of like a version of what goes on inside my brain. I’m always thinking about life and life beyond life, space and the future, and bring[ing] that into the music. Even though there are only a few lyrics, I believe you can convey meaning with textures and decisions.”

Though he was born in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Guerin was raised upriver in Baton Rouge. His father Roland Guerin is a professional bassist who played with such jazz musicians as Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, and John Scofield. He’s best known, however, for his 1994-2009 stint with Marcus Roberts, his 2008-2015 tenure with Allen Toussaint, and his 2016-2019 work with Dr. John.

“I would always listen to my dad’s music,” Guerin remembers. “Sometimes I would sit in and ask a lot of questions. My dad is probably the first person to introduce me to engineering, because he always had a studio at home in Baton Rouge. He’d write, record, and mix his own records there. He was close to Allen, who helped him a lot with his lyrics. Knowing Allen and Dr. John helped me focus in on how to convey a message in a song.

“But it starts with my grandmother Lorena, my dad’s mom,” Morgan says. “She taught him to play. She was a professional musician, who played electric bass and some guitar with a lot of blues, zydeco, and R&B bands. Her record collection was insane. Madeira was her street, five minutes away from us. She would sit me in her lap with the drumsticks in my hand; she would play a groove and then let go of my hands and I would have to keep the groove going.”

Lorena had a dedicated music room with a piano and drum kit set up at all times. Accordions, washboards, guitars, and horns were lying around, so it was easy for a young kid with a lot of curiosity to try them all, especially during the semi-regular family jam sessions. Roland’s home studio gave his son a chance to master recording gear. Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson gifted Morgan with an alto saxophone, when the latter was seven and the former was leaving Louisiana.

Morgan’s parents separated when he was in the fifth grade, and he moved with his mother to Atlanta. While a high-school sophomore there, he used his accumulated instruments to create an audition video for the Berklee Summer Jazz Workshop, an all-expenses-paid program for a select number of high-school musicians.

“The video he sent in sounded great,” says Carrington, the workshop’s artistic director since 2005. “He sent in a blues, and his improvisation sounded really strong. He played a Charlie Parker head, had a T-shirt with the band Chicago on it, and he’s from New Orleans. That let me know he was a well-rounded listener, not stuck on one thing. I chose him for saxophone; I had no idea he played drums and bass.”

Once he arrived, Guerin impressed both Carrington and Rick DiMuzio, the ensemble director and a saxophonist himself. They found that he could already play in high registers many professionals struggle with. He was also dabbling in advanced compositional concepts, even if he didn’t know the names for them. There was one moment of crisis, however.

“Some people were clowning in the workshop,” Carrington recalls, “and due to peer pressure, he started clowning too. I took him aside and said, ‘You have a lot of potential; it’s up to you what you do with it. What you do now, the decisions you make now, will determine how that happens.’”

That was all it took. Guerin got back on track, and Carrington encouraged him to stay in touch. He started sending her his recordings, both demos and his debut album. Only then did his mentor realize that he was a multi-instrumentalist. When Carrington plotted with Stevens and keyboardist Aaron Parks to form the group that became Social Science, the first person she thought of as an additional member was Guerin.

“Here was someone who could play horns, bass, and drums,” she explains. “Even though I’d first known him as a saxophonist, I’d seen him playing bass on his videos, so I knew he could do it. I knew I could help him, by encouraging him to listen to certain players, by letting him know the things I like to hear.

“Early on, I told him to listen to Paul Jackson on Herbie’s Headhunters records, then I told him about Meshell Ndegeocello. I encouraged him to try different approaches to the notes, where they don’t land flat but end with some vibrato or a bend, to get some other textures out of his notes. I told him to listen to Derrick Hodge, because Derrick has a great sense of the length of a note. Each note is going to sound different if you cut it off completely or let it ring for a beat or two. It’s not just the length, it’s also how you come off it.”

Guerin had a head start, because he was the son of a bassist and had been a fan of Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius, and New Orleans legend George Porter Jr. But getting hired by a touring and recording band to hold down the bass chair was a new challenge.

“Some people aren’t sure what the bass player is doing,” Guerin says, “but I’m a person who believes the bass is one of the most important instruments. It has to handle the lower frequencies, but it can also work in the middle frequencies. The drums and bass have to work together, but they have separate roles. I’m still trying to work on my time by playing along to old records. I was coming from complete improvisation, but now I know better: The time, the groove, and the tightness are the most important things.”

“Sci-fi is something I’ve always been fascinated by—the themes, the colors. That comes from inside my own head, from wanting to imagine a better world.”

Even before he was hired by Carrington, Guerin was hired by Esperanza Spalding for her 12 Little Spells tour. When he asked what to bring on the tour, she named five different instruments—including bass.

“I said, ‘Oh, shit, I have to play bass on a gig with Esperanza, one of my favorite bass players.’ But you can’t say no, because you want the job. I had to know what I was doing, so I just crammed before the tour started. I wound up switching instruments on nearly every song.”

“Maybe because the bass is not his first instrument,” Stevens suggests, “he’s able to think purely in terms of how to best serve the music and function within the band without any of the usual ego attached to it. I can imagine it would be really liberating to play that well on an instrument that wasn’t so wrapped up in your identity.”

Guerin is emphatic that learning all these instruments is the means to an end, not the end itself. When he was young and didn’t have much money, it made sense to cut costs by doing as much as he could on his own. But the ultimate goal is to make the best music he can however he can. For example, the Brooklyn venue Roulette recently commissioned him to write a chamber-music piece, and he hired two violas, cello, bassoon, flute, piano, bass, and drums to play the composition while he conducted.

“When I’m in the studio, I’m using these different instruments as writing tools,” Guerin adds, “so it’s easy to go ahead and record them. But I don’t know how many albums I’m going to do like that; it’s not the only thing I’m going to do with my life. I mean, some things I just can’t do, like play guitar or sing. I have no problem asking for help.”

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.