Morgan Guerin and his music refuse to fit easily into a single box. Born into a musical family, Guerin’s performance identity revolves around his background as a drummer and saxophonist, while his composition practice centers around piano and singing. And it doesn’t stop there—he’s the bassist for Terri Lyne Carrington’s band. At just nineteen, Guerin is beginning his sophomore year at The New School, after many years of programs at Berklee, Vail, Monterey, and The Grammy Jazz Band.
For his New York debut as a leader, Guerin will present The Saga II, his latest album. Following on the heels of his previous album, The Saga, Guerin uses the album to flex his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, arranger, audio engineer, and composer, all to the highest degree. At The Jazz Gallery this week, Guerin will play saxophone and EWI, alongside a band consisting of Alyssa McDoom (vocals), Sasha Berliner (vibraphone), Lex Korten (piano), Nick Dunston (bass), and Jongkuk “JK” Kim (drums). We caught up with Guerin to talk about his multifaceted approach to making music and his life in New York thus far.
TJG: Walk us through the process of writing and recording The Saga II, especially for those who may not be familiar with you or your musicianship.
Morgan Guerin: Sure. I play a bunch of instruments, and try to play them all at a somewhat-proficient level. It was my dream to have a studio setup at home, so that I wouldn’t have to rely on others for studio time, rehearsals, and so on. We’re talking junior year of high school; I didn’t have a car. I was inspired by videos by certain people like Jacob Collier. They do everything, play all the instruments, arrange it, master their stuff. I wanted to show people that I don’t only play saxophone. I’m a pretty secretive person, though. I like to lay low in social situations. I’ll never say “My name’s Morgan Guerin, I play these instruments,” I’m not comfortable introducing myself in this way. But I wanted to, I guess, silently let people know what I have to offer, and that I enjoy it [laughs].
TJG: How do you tend to introduce yourself, then?
MG: It depends on the situation. I usually say, “I’m a saxophonist and a drummer.” I like to leave it at that. Of course, I play bass in Terri Lyne Carrington’s band, but I can’t really call myself a true bass player. I definitely have not mastered that instrument. I can’t really play upright, and as a bassist, you should be able to hang at both, going to “a jazz school,” anyway.
TJG: So do you envision yourself primarily as a solo artist, who enlists a band to bring your material to life? And then you’re a sideman for others? Or do you strive for more collaboration in general?
MG: I just want to do it all. I’m extremely down to have my own situation going on, touring with my own band. But equally, I want to bring my voice to others’ music. That’s what music’s all about, sharing your gifts with others.
TJG: What are some of the challenges of leading a band where you arranged and played everything yourself on the record?
MG: Things can get pretty specific with my music. The first time I went through an arrangement with the band, with parts and charts, it was weird for me. I’d never heard anyone else play my music. It took me a second to realize what’s going on. “Oh,” I thought, “that’s what it’s like to have other people play your music.” It opened my mind to so many new ideas. People have different experiences that they bring to the music, so I always try to play with others. Especially if they’re killing [laughs].
TJG: When was that first time, that realization?
MG: When I released the first album, I did a CD-release-graduation-party-concert, where I played the first album in its entirety, The Saga, with a live band. We were having rehearsals for that show, and people were telling me how hard the music was. “Yo, this is insane, this is hard,” they were saying. “I’m gonna have to shed” [laughs]. When the album was released, it was with the same band that’ll be playing at the Gallery, except for Nick Dunston, because he was overseas or something at the time. We all stayed at my place, rehearsed, had a good time. We won’t have to worry about sheet music now. It’s all internalized, for the most part.
TJG: So you’re playing saxophone for these shows?
MG: Yeah, mostly. I’ll bring a synth for textures or something, whatever the music calls for. As a sax player, you may play the melody, some backgrounds, maybe a solo, then you go stand on the side of the stage. The drummer, by contrast, is almost always playing. So to have a little synthesizer keeps me as a part of the music even if I’m not on the sax.
TJG: What flows for you with the combination of Nick Dunston (bass) and JK Kim (drums) in the rhythm section?
MG: It’s extremely killing. Me and Nick, we were in ensembles last year, my favorite ensembles in the world. We’ve all known each other for years, it’s such a strong bond. When it comes down to playing together, they know me so well. They know what my music calls for. They can jump in easily.
TJG: Are there any ways you have to wrangle them around? Any times when you say “Yo, this is killing, but not exactly what I’m looking for?”
MG: Of course. Maybe there’s a different vibe I’ve been feeling for a few days, and I’ll say, “Try this,” or “go for that.” They suggest changes to the tunes, too. Moving hits on a chart, changing chords, small things. On one of my songs, “Conundrum,” Lex was doing some chords that sounded amazing, he did it randomly on stage. I was like, “Whoa. I feel you. I agree, one hundred percent.”
TJG: Drums was your first instrument, and you’re at home on the saxophone. When writing, where do you usually begin, and how do you like to develop ideas?
MG: For the most part, I start writing on piano. I could be walking down the street, hear a melody in my head, and then bring it back to my room and try to do something with it. I’ll just hit record, and do a whole pass on the song. I won’t even know what the song is, I’ll just hit record and go for it. That’s what was hard for me, writing charts. I didn’t write a single chart before recording. All the pieces are through-composed, mostly from sitting at the piano and hitting record before knowing what the song is. Then, I’ll visualize a band playing it and an audience listening to it, and start to make changes. I’ll play through it on the drums. If it’s something fun, I’ll just add it, play over it. It’s very natural. Sometimes I write on bass too. Believe it or not, I think I’ve done the least amount of writing on saxophone. Out of eighteen tunes on the two albums, maybe four of them I wrote with the sax in my hand.
TJG: When you think of those tunes, do they stand out, feel different, knowing you wrote them on sax?
MG: Not really, actually. Not too much. One of the songs, “Lk02,” I know for sure I wrote it on sax. A friend and I were playing outside on the Atlanta Beltline, and I recorded it on my phone. Listening back, I found that line, and I played it a lot. I couldn’t stop playing it, for some reason. I put it away for a few months, then came across it when listening to some of my voice memos. “This is a strong melody,” I thought, and wanted to bring it into a composition.
TJG: At The New School, what are you focusing on?
MG: I’m there for saxophone. Most people know I’m a drummer as well, and a bassist, so I’ll do rehearsals and sessions on those when it calls for it. But mostly I’m focusing on saxophone. I’m studying, taking the business courses. I want to get into the deeper side of the music industry, the side people don’t want to learn about. At The New School, you make your career out of how you use the school. You make what you can and want to out of it. I’m taking advantage of being able to study with anyone on the New School’s roster, it’s just out of this world insane. It’s a blessing.
TJG: Do you have your energies pulled between these different genres, these different instruments? Do you wake up and think, “Ah, what’s it gonna be today? There’s so much I wanna do.”
MG: [Laughs] every day. For example, I’m working on a friend’s project in Atlanta, but haven’t been able to give it the attention it deserves. I have other projects, audio engineering and stuff. I’ll come out with another album at some point. There’s so much to do. There’s school work. There’s a social life, being a nineteen-year-old in New York. Shows, rehearsals, video editing, there aren’t enough days. But I’ve been going through it all with the mindset that “tomorrow’s never promised,” in that each day, I try to get as much done as I can, to live as fully as possible.
TJG: How old did you say you were?
MG: I just turned nineteen.
TJG: What’s next for you? Are you already looking toward The Saga III?
MG: Don’t know yet! Terri Lyne Carrington’s band is releasing an album pretty soon, and we’ll be touring. I’m definitely looking forward to that. It would be great to release another album of my own. I don’t want to be wasting time, but I want to give it time. Does that make sense?
TJG: Yeah it does. Well, you have the time to figure it out. And we’re excited to hear you at The Gallery next week.
MG: Definitely. We’ll be playing almost all the pieces from The Saga II, as well as a few that didn’t make it to the album. I’m super excited, it’s going to be so much fun.
Morgan Guerin plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 14th, 2017. The group features Guerin on saxophone, EWI, and synthesizer; Alyssa McDoom on vocals; Sasha Berliner on vibraphone; Lex Korten on piano; Nick Dunston on bass; and Jongkuk (JK) Kim on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.