As a multi-instrumentalist, Morgan Guerin has a uniquely-large sound palette. While he primarily performs on the saxophone, you can find also him playing at a professional level on several instruments, from bass with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science to synthesizers with Esperanza Spalding. In some cases, as on his three self-released The Saga albums, he’ll perform multiple instruments on any given song.
Through his 2020-2021 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, Sanctuary, Guerin focuses on another part of his artistry: his skills as a composer. In the piece, Guerin hopes to bridge any perceived gap between genres by conducting and adding his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) and saxophone to a large ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical performers. In our conversation with Guerin, he reflected on how his instrumental skills impact his compositional process and how his music has evolved from project to project.
The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Sanctuary?
Morgan Guerin: It is based on my longstanding desire to present long-form melodies and themes in their own time, as they come. Last year, I did a commission for Roulette called Wishes, which was inspired by Wayne Shorter. It featured an eight-person ensemble with two violas, cello, flute, bassoon, piano, bass, drums, and myself on saxophone and EWI. That project was fascinating to me and Sanctuary expands upon some of its ideas and instrumentation.
TJG: How is Sanctuary different from the work you did on Wishes?
MG: Sanctuary will be about twice as long as Wishes. It also involves more musicians. Both of those differences allow the group to open up a little more. Sanctuary also features new personnel for the most part. Of course, new artists will bring in new approaches and sounds.
TJG: Wayne Shorter is an obvious influence on your music. Was the choice in the title of this commission at all inspired by his famous composition of the same name on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew?
MG: No. I have always been fascinated by what Wayne Shorter has contributed to music, particularly his use of chamber instrumentation, but this piece wasn’t directly named after that song. I named it Sanctuary because it is effectively my invitation to listeners to enter into my sacred space. This commission is very personal and unlike anything I’ve released before. On many of my other projects, I play several instruments and the focus is on my skills on those instruments. But, here, the focus is primarily on my abilities as a composer rather than my own performance.
TJG: How do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist has shaped your compositional process compared to someone who focuses primarily on only one or a few instruments?
MG: To be honest, I am not sure whether being a multi-instrumentalist is an advantage or disadvantage in terms of composing. It certainly gives me more insight into what things are possible on a given instrument. During the writing process itself, that background also helps me figure things out on various instruments. I will have instruments in the same room while I have the scores pulled up and just imagine what things people could be playing or how they may be approaching a particular part. To be honest, most of my writing I do on a MIDI controller and Sibelius but it is still good to have that perspective at times.
TJG: When composing the parts for Sanctuary, did you have certain musicians in mind as you were writing, or did you compose the parts based on the instrumentation alone and leave it to the specific performers to put their own spin on it?
MG: I was able to get the band together maybe a month or two ago and have been writing with those specific musicians in mind. This aspect of composing has been particularly fun for me as it is different than what I do with my other projects. In most of my projects, I am just writing for myself. But, here, I get to take into consideration how others will approach the music.
TJG: So, for instance, you considered Tyshawn Sorey’s idiosyncrasies and style when writing out a drum part for him?
MG: [laughing] Actually, Tyshawn is the only part for which I didn’t write something specific. I didn’t write him a drum part but instead left it to him to figure out within the context of the rest of the score. He’s a brilliant dude and has a photographic memory. Who knows, he may have the score memorized better than I do.
TJG: In addition to composing and conducting the piece, you also play saxophone and EWI. You are one of the few people who play the EWI somewhat regularly. How did you get into playing the instrument?
MG: I started playing the EWI in high school after I became fascinated by Michael Brecker’s work on it. Although there have been a few great artists who have used the EWI, I always really loved what Brecker was able to do with it.
The EWI is very different from the saxophone and, sometimes, allows me to do way more than I could ever imagine doing on the saxophone. It is eight octaves, so it can do a lot. It is also a lot of fun to play. Generally, I use the EWI like a singer uses their voice. I use it primarily as an extension of my voice and to add different textures, pedals, and effects. If I can sound like Brandi on an EWI, I would be happy [laughing].
TJG: How did you determine the instrumentation for Sanctuary? A lot of people wouldn’t necessarily think of pairing strings and orchestral horns with the EWI.
MG: I wanted the group to sound like a small orchestra but without the budget for a larger group. I determined that the best way to do this would be to have each section of the orchestra represented by instruments that I feel like are the core elements of that section. For woodwinds, I decided on flute and bassoon as two instruments that sound well together and in ensembles more generally. The bassoon has a wide octave range so can work well with low brass instruments like the trombone. It can almost slide into the brass world if you write with that approach in mind. And then I added French Horn. I had a cello on Wishes and wanted to be more reflective of the lower register on Sanctuary. So, I added bassoon, French Horn, trombone, and viola. And then also have double bass. The strings — two violinists and a viola instead of a cello—can almost form a string quartet with the bass.
TJG: Not a lot of people would identify the French Horn or bassoon as common to jazz but would to classical music. How do you see the interaction between these two categories of music? Are they essentially the same thing but with just different emphasis or do they differ greatly?
MG: There are so many different ways to answer that. I can answer this question only in reference to my own music and others could provide a very different answer.
I am very fascinated with classical music and I chose this instrumentation to make people reconsider the idea that classical music must sound a specific way. I want to get rid of the notion that classical music sounds like XYZ. I decided to incorporate all of these elements into a more Black modal approach in some of the parts. There are certainly classical elements in the work, but its focal point is trying to bridge the gap between genres and not try to limit those specific elements to one genre or another. You never entirely know where the project will go musically—especially with Tyshawn involved and without a part specifically written for him—but that is the general concept.
TJG: Is this bridging the gap one of the reasons you wanted to work with Tyshawn on this project?
MG: Tyshawn has clearly devoted himself to both worlds and I have always been fascinated by his extreme versatility when it comes to dynamics. He has dang near perfect time too and an amazing ability to listen and make great decisions on the bandstand as well. He’s also done amazing work with strings. Actually, one of the violinists for Sanctuary, Fung Chern Hwei, recorded with Tyshawn on one of his albums. Tyshawn is well versed in this area of music and I am looking forward to hearing what he does on my project.
TJG: Your three The Saga albums draw upon ideas from electronic music, hip hop, and R&B. How do you feel those concepts will, if at all, appear in Sanctuary?
MG: I feel like each thing I release is a new arrival point. I am never going to reach my final musical form until the end. [laughing]. Instead, I just keep things moving and never look behind me. All of this music for Sanctuary is what I’ve always wanted to write but never really had the opportunity to do so. It’s expensive to hire an eleven-piece group for two nights.
I like the idea of ultimately having an incredibly diverse catalogue of music and not being limited to one type of sound. I see The Saga albums as a different chapter of my music. So, the ideas on those albums are not the focal point on a project like Sanctuary.
But all of my music is still representative of me, just at a different place in my life. The sounds on The Saga recordings, especially the third one, do still relate to what I am doing with Sanctuary. It is all Black music and is all related in some form. At the end of the day, I do want people to bob their heads with a project like Sanctuary, even if the instruments used are strings and brass. I feel like that element can be translated no matter the specific instrumentation.
TJG: One last question, unrelated to Sanctuary specifically. You are a member of the Jazz Gallery All-Stars. What can you share about being a part of that group?
MG: For starters, it is an honor to be a part of that group.
However, it is also a little strange to be in that band. Maybe it is just my own humbleness, but the title “All-Star”, to me, means a Hall of Fame level musician. I don’t feel like I am at that level. At least not yet.
But it is a heck of a band. I am the youngest one in the group and a sponge when it comes to listening to others, digesting, and learning. I am glad to be in the midst of it all. If it wasn’t for Rio and The Jazz Gallery, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Pretty much all of my own shows since I moved to New York five years ago have been with them.
The The Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions presents Morgan Guerin’s Sanctuary on Friday, July 16 and Saturday, July 17, 2021. The group features Mr. Guerin on woodwinds and EWI, Bart Plateau on flute, Adam Cordero on bassoon, Marlena DeStefano on french horn, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Fung Chern Hwei and Mario Gotoh on violin, Joanna Mattrey on viola, Mike King on piano, Or Bareket on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. EDT each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 for reserved seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.