Listeners would be hard pressed to find a sound that hasn’t already reverberated in Morgan Guerin’s mind’s ear. The saxophonist, composer and multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans has a habit of transforming the flap of a pigeon’s wing or the departure of a C train into seeds for songs.
After releasing two records as a leader—and working with such distinct voices as Nicholas Payton, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington and Ellis Marsalis— Guerin has developed a sort of mantra: “Everything in life can be placed in a musical context.”
“I like the idea of having sounds more so than specific instruments,” he says. “I’m always down to create a sound. That’s why I’m so into analogue synthesizers and inanimate objects that create a sound that I can take back to my studio and completely alter, whether it’s [using] outboard effects or reamping.”
Using his own microKORG or the Prophet 6 he regularly borrows from a friend, Guerin busies himself manipulating soundwaves, seeking first to find something that he hasn’t heard before. And while he turns inward now and then when writing new music, his greatest source of inspiration for composing tends to be the sounds themselves.
“Some stuff comes from emotions, but some stuff comes strictly from having no emotions and letting whatever sound I’m messing with just take the wheel. There are some cases where I’d just be so deep in a vibe. A lot of people would be like, ‘I wrote this thinking about this or feeling this or this,’ and sometimes it can happen that way for me, sometimes it can’t. Most of the time, it can’t. I’m such an in-the-moment person and I can’t be like, ‘Oh this emotion that I felt last month inspired me to write this.’”
One exercise that does help Guerin bring emotional depth to his compositions in a deliberate way is the practice of lyric writing, a relatively new endeavor for him.
“Once I can strengthen that trait, maybe I can start tying emotions to my songs. I’m not saying emotions don’t exist in the songs that don’t have lyrics, but maybe I would write something with emotions in mind.”
As is the story with many artists, inspiration strikes Guerin without warning. Because he hears music in the context of his daily routines, he finds a multitude of ways to transform what he’s hearing into a composition.
“I could be walking down the street and I’ll hear something and record it on my phone and then come back to it later on the piano. I write a lot of songs on bass first, and I think I write the least amount of songs on saxophone. [The bass] is the most recent instrument I’ve dug into. And as I’m getting to know the instrument, all these ideas are coming—ideas that I wouldn’t have had, had I been writing on my sax or on the piano. So it’s kind of like, I’m figuring out the instrument in writing songs. It’s just fun to explore the instrument and write songs within the process of exploring the instrument, which goes back to [being] in the moment.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Guerin found playing music to be more than a skill or desire; it was his birthright. But after his parents divorced, he found himself exploring the equally rich and unique musical tradition of Atlanta. “I got to give a shout out to both cities,” he says, “because both cities definitely helped shape me to where I am now.”
“I grew up in that music—zydeco and jazz, blues—nouveau swing, which is Donald Harrison—second line, and the tradition—I grew up in all that. So it was kind of embedded in me. It still is. Then I moved to Atlanta in 2009; it’s a different scene. There’s still a ton of jazz there, but being in Atlanta opened my eyes to all of the R&B and pop and hip hop—that whole side of music that I wasn’t really getting in New Orleans because I was so distracted by all the jazz that it has to offer right there in the city.”
Now a New Yorker, Guerin finds himself engaging in a little frontier chasing. His first two records The Saga (2016) and The Saga II (2017) began teasing out certain sounds that piqued his curiosity, and he took deliberate steps toward a richly-layered instrumentation (much of which is credited to Guerin himself) to establish a vibe and then build on it. But as he works toward his next release, his ears are fixed on something new and a bit abstract but, according to Guerin, achievable.
“There’s a new sound that I’m exploring right now. I’ve got to be honest, I was almost there with The Saga II—I was almost at the sound that I wanted. But in the moment, [it’s not that I gave] up, but I felt like if I had added more, it would overdo it. This next series of compositions—I’ve never explained it, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing—is definitely a lot of sounds and a lot of melodies. I’m super big on parts nowadays—specific parts. When I was growing up in New Orleans I wasn’t introduced to Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, The Flaming Lips, The Beatles—all those bands. I moved to New York and all my friends were like, ‘Ah man, you don’t know?’ There was a lot of stuff I needed to catch up on. I mean, I’ll be catching up my whole life, but in this sense, [I heard] all those specific parts, people playing roles and not as much improvisation—as in ‘featured soloists,’ not improvisation as freedom in the music, because that’s different. And [all those parts] create the song.”
When Guerin considers the song as a concept, he reaches two conclusions about what that concept represents.
“It could be open for interpretation, having improvised parts and a basic lead sheet, or things could be more set in stone and the song could be the song. A lot of the bands have the songs that they’re known for—or just their songs in general—and they have their specific parts so it sounds almost the same live as it does in the studio. I’m not saying that that’s a goal of mine, but it’s really cool to have specific roles and for the song to be the song, regardless of who’s playing it. The song would be so strong that we wouldn’t need a specific band to make that song stronger or for that song to have a different type of weight when somebody plays it compared to when somebody else [plays it].
While he remains fascinated by roles and written parts, Guerin rejects the idea of an outfit devoid of improvisation. His upcoming gig at the Gallery offers an evening that showcases the sound he’s been working to achieve, in all its permutations and including a healthy dose of spontaneity. “In this show, there will be improvisation, but it will be less,” says Guerin. “There will be plenty though.”
“I’m not against improvisation at all, don’t get me wrong. There’s a ton of stuff I do out here that requires improvisation and requires me dealing with a style or different time period of jazz. I want to do it all. I definitely want to do it all. But with this new project of mine, this is me exploring something that I’ve never explored before—something I’ve never known existed, in a way. So I’m really down to take the risk and try some stuff out.”
When sked where he sees this risky exploration heading, Guerin answers with a certain uncertainty.
“I will say that everybody’s different,” he says. “I feel like we need a majority to determine what’s going to happen in the future, unless one person can take us there singlehandedly—not alone, but as a strong force on their own. Music’s going a bunch of different ways right now. I’m super fascinated with the era of the ’70s with all those synthesizers and all those parts, and I would definitely like to build off of that, not necessarily bring it back, because it’s already been done. It’s hard to find something that hasn’t already been done. But that’s the challenge.”
The Morgan Guerin Group plays The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, March 22, 2018. The group features Mr. Guerin on saxophone, EWI and synth; Alyssa McDoom on vocals; Lex Korten on piano and synth; Evan Wright on guitar; Nick Dunston on bass; and JK Kim on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.