Morgan Guerin is one of the most talented young musicians on the current jazz scene. Originally from New Orleans, he’s currently based in Atlanta. He plays alto and tenor saxophones, flute, EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), trumpet, guitar, piano, Fender Rhodes, organ, synth bass, drums, and percussion. He’s performed multiple times at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, attended Berklee, and was a member of the house band at the 2016 Grammy Awards. He released his debut album, The Saga, in April. (Get it on Bandcamp.)
Though its title may recall Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic, this is no three-disc slab of retro-minded spiritual jazz. It’s a concise, melodic disc, packing eight tracks into just 43 minutes. While Guerin plays the majority of the instruments himself, including multiple overdubbed horns, keyboards, and drums, there are several guests present. None of them are famous (yet), but their contributions are worth noting. Patrick Arthur plays electric guitar on all but two tracks, and acoustic on one more; Brandon Boone plays electric bass on two tracks and upright on three others, while Roland Guerin and Paul Johnson also contribute electric bass to one track each; Julius Rodriguez guests on organ, Grace Sommer on cello, Curtis Olawumi on flugelhorn and Danny Wytamis on trombone. Four tracks feature vocals: Dashill Smith raps on the opening “Parallel,” there’s a spoken word interlude by Allana Hudson on “Blueprint,” and Risa Pearl sings on the two-part “With a Peace of Mind.”
The music sits in a weird zone of its own making, somewhere between soul, fusion, and progressive rock. At times, it can be hard to tell what instrument Guerin is using to generate his long, winding solos, which only makes the whole thing more interesting. The title piece features an extended interlude of scat singing through what could be a vocoder, or the EWI, but that yields to a more traditional synth solo, and then a straightforward tenor sax excursion, with string patches behind him giving it the feel of something Stanley Turrentine might have recorded for CTI in the early 1970s. Guerin’s drumming is as solid as his lead work is expansive; he plays grooves that swing, but feel informed by rock as well. “Madeira” is a lush post-bop mood piece that wouldn’t be out of place on almost any modern jazz album; the piano and Fender Rhodes (and drums) are ably bolstered by Boone’s bass, as Guerin takes an exploratory tenor sax solo that maintains the smooth feel he’s clearly happiest with, but takes the occasional step outside.
The two-part “With a Peace of Mind” runs nearly nine minutes; it starts with a two-minute introduction, Pearl crooning wordlessly over piano. As the rhythm section (with Boone on upright bass again) comes in for the second half, Arthur adds a slow-burning lead guitar line, which eventually becomes an exchange between himself and Guerin’s piano. In the deep background, at the quietest moments, a soft sci-fi pulse from some kind of synth can be heard.
Morgan Guerin‘s music is remarkable not only for its stylistic breadth—this album jumps from squiggly ’70s fusion to acoustic balladry, and makes room for rap and poetry along the way—but for the organic feel it maintains despite being largely created via overdubbing. He jumps from keyboards to drums to reed instruments, layering it all in a dense but still breathable manner, leaves room for guests to make their voices heard, and somehow makes it sound like a real live band working it out in a room. The Saga is an impressive achievement indeed.
Stream and buy it on Bandcamp: