Monday, April 25, 2016

Jazz Phenom Morgan Guerin Debuts "The Saga" at The Velvet Note

This past Tuesday evening there was an invitation only event held at the Velvet Note jazz club in Alpharetta. The occasion was the preview and first public listening of a new recording by a young multi-instrumentalist phenom, Morgan Guerin.

Morgan Guerin
Guerin explained to the crowd of interested cognoscenti that he had spent a majority of his youth living and absorbing the music scene in New Orleans, where his father Roland Guerin is an active professional bass player. A few years ago Morgan  found himself uprooted by the divorce of his parents. He was relocated to live with his mother, attorney Brianna Williams, to a new home in Atlanta. The traumatic experience became the source of much anxiety for the young Guerin, but like all artists he turned this trauma into the germ of inspiration. The experience was filled with apprehension and doubt. In New Orleans Guerin was surrounded by jazz luminaries that he came to know personally through his father’s professional and social associations. The Marsalis family, saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Christian Scott were all friends of the family and the young Guerin saw his father play with guitarist Mark Whitfield and pianists Marcus Roberts and Allen Toussaint among others.This rich cultural experience was the nurturing environment that encouraged Guerin to pursue his ultimate career choice to be a musician. It was a bit of a culture shock for the young man to come to Atlanta and see that jazz wasn’t the main focus of the music scene here. A variety of musical genres that seem to flourish in this city. hip hop, neo soul, techno dance and R and B were all part of the music scene and Guerin started to question whether there was a place for the music he loved, jazz, in Atlanta. He even found himself questioning the pursuit of his music, at times even considering a more traditional career path. Fortunately his love of the music prevailed and where there is such abundant talent, there is always an audience. It didn’t take long for the young man to find his way into the hearts and minds of the jazz community in Atlanta.  

He continued advancing his musical education by attending prestigious jazz camps like the Vail Jazz Workshop, the summer jazz programs at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and summer programs at the New School in New Orleans and he told me he plans to continue his studies after he graduates from high school this year at the  New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC.. He was selected to be part of the Grammy Band that was featured week long at the 58th annual Grammy Awards presentations this past February. All the while the deeply introspective Guerin was composing and shedding, using all the beauty and angst that was part of his life and transforming it into complex compositions that he felt were representative of what he had experienced from his earliest memories to his current state of mind. The result is his debut album The Saga, a long, detailed, series of stories which we were there to hear for the first time that evening,

Morgan Guerin

To appreciate the talent that this young artist has, one has to recognize the magnitude of the accomplishment that this album represents. Guerin is a multi-instrumentalist. On The Saga he plays the drums, percussion, the piano and Fender Rhodes, both alto and tenor saxophones, the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Moog bass, organ, flute and Vocoder. If that weren’t enough he also wrote all the songs and arranged and recorded them in his own home studio!  And let’s not forget the young man is just seventeen! The closest comparison to such a multi-talented young musician is the British phenom Jacob Collier who is now nineteen and studies jazz piano at the Royal Academy. The main difference between these two, is that while they both play multiple instruments and are adept at electronics, Collier also sings and harmonizes with himself on multiple levels. However Guerin writes and arranges his own music while Collier mostly re-arranges popular songs by other people.

As Morgan states in the liner notes all the songs are “… the result of hard work and meditation.” Hard work and extraordinary dedication has certainly paid off for Guerin as his compositions range from the opening hip-hop inspired “Parallel” with its electronic, funk driven vibe and featuring the rap vocal of Dashill Smith to the more cosmic “Blueprint” with Guerin’s probing saxophone and EWI work and a spoken poem by Allana Hudson at the coda.

“Tabula Rasa” is, by Guerin’s own admission, an aggressive, pleading cry for clarity as he was trying to reconcile leaving his beloved New Orleans and finding his way in his adopted city of Atlanta.  The song rises to what I perceive is a joyful, albeit energized ascension to acceptance. The music skillfully integrates electronic sounds and effects with more traditional instrumentation and Guerin has been able to get fellow students to seamlessly participate in the creative process while never actually being present in the same location. Patrick Arthur’s electric and acoustic guitar work and Brandon Boone on electric and upright bass are the two fellow musician whose work is heard throughout the album. Jules Rodriguez on organ and Paul “Papabear” Johnson on bass are heard on “Parallel.” On the beautiful “Sharynwood Drive,” a reference to his home in New Orleans, there is a bittersweet opening to the composition that features an achingly touching cello solo by Grace Sommer. Ultimately the music has a nostalgic tone, a place that Guerin identifies to this day as a happy place filled with good memories. Curtis Olawumi on flugelhorn, Daniel Wytanis on trombone and a touching electric bass solo by his father Roland Guerin lead the music to a place where it elevates to a joyous declaration played by Guerin on tenor.

Guerin’s memories of  another New Orleans location of importance to his development, is also represented joyfully by the uplifting, “Madeira”, a reference to the street name of his grandmother's home, where he had childhood memories of music filling the air. His tenor playing bursts with excited enthusiasm as the repeating rhythm he creates sweeps you up in an ever ascending swirl of elation.

The two-part suite “With a Peace of Mind” part 1 and 2 Guerin plays the melody on piano synchronously with Risa Pearl’s lilting voice and at times with Arthur’s electric guitar. The effect is quite tranquil and Guerin’s drums are ever present, accenting the breaks and coloring the lines in between.

The title song “Saga” is a floating composition where Gurein uses the Vocoder. He said it was inspired by some of Herbie Hancock’s work on the album Sunlight.  The song has elements of Lonnie Liston Smith’s celestially inspired work with the EWI and vocoder leading the way over the swelling synthesized melodies. Guerin’s tenor solo is fluid and sensuous as it climbs to ever higher peaks and the composition escalates to a cosmic end.

When speaking to Guerin at the club, he was totally engaging. it was interesting to hear some of this young man’s eclectic influences, like ethereal guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonists, like the taciturn Mark Turner, the iconoclastic Jerry Bergonzi and the audacious Michael Brecker. He is also influenced by the young lions- upcoming saxophonists who now dominate the modern scene- like Seamus Blake, Donny McCaslin and Ben Wendel. I suspect with continued work and diligence, in the not too distant future, Morgan Guerin will join the ranks of these young lions of jazz.  He is certainly someone to keep your eye on and an artist who deserves our encouragement and support.

You can listen to the album and purchase by clicking here.

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