New Orleans' Roland Guerin looks to his past and future on new 'PROG:FUNK' EP
Roland Guerin’s “PROG:FUNK” EP is a bridge between the past and a new chapter for the New Orleans-based bassist, singer and songwriter.
Guerin’s career has led him to learn from many of the greats of New Orleans music, like saxophonist Alvin Batiste, who taught Guerin at Southern University, and a long association with Allen Toussaint. He also played with Dr. John and became the pianist’s musical director in 2017.
That experience can be heard in the songwriting and storytelling on the brief, three-song EP, which is out Feb. 16. It’s bubbling under the surface of the kinetic mix of prog rock and funk, a unique style that Guerin is developing with a full-length album on the horizon.
“I’ve been writing songs hinting at this for a while, but this is more of a mature form of it,” Guerin says from Toronto, Ontario. Guerin is currently on tour with drummer Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band, a group Guerin has regularly performed with in recent years.
Guerin’s albums over the years have included a wide range of musical interests and styles, from jazz to R&B, funk and Americana. His latest album, 2019’s “Grass Roots,” blended many of those genres, and he included homages to Toussaint, Dr. John and his family’s Creole history.
When the pandemic hit, Guerin shifted quickly to working at home, writing more and focusing on production, he says — alongside taking care of a newborn child. He began to develop a newer playing technique in his right hand, which drew him to approach songwriting differently. And he was listening to a lot of new music, including more progressive rock and metal by bands like Intervals and guitarists such as Paul Gilbert and Olly Steele.
The music “just really hit home,” Guerin says. “You listen to something and you like it, but when you pick up your instrument and play, then you start drawing from your own experiences and your background and your influences. So, I just immediately started writing from my influences — from Allen Toussaint, from Dr. John, from Alvin Batiste, then Peter Gabriel, from Sting and Prince.”
The new music started flowing out, he says. The sound is forward looking while still being rooted in history. Lyrically, the three songs on “PROG:FUNK” also seem to speak to the early chaos of the pandemic.
The bass riff-heavy “I Propose” touches on those months’ competition for digital attention, while wishing people would be more drawn to cooperation and community. “Crunch Time” is a patient, dreamy track about growing older and realizing the preciousness of time and the moments shared with others. On the EP’s catchy closer, “Bridge to Open Waters” — which gives the name to the upcoming full-length — Guerin urges listeners to open their minds to changes that push society forward.
During the pandemic, Guerin also wrote the song “28 Days,” which won a songwriting contest hosted by Burl Audio. The newly won equipment helped Guerin produce his EP in his home studio. He also plays every part on the new tracks, except for drumming by John Jones on the song “I Propose.”
After his tour with Blade’s Fellowship Band, Guerin returns to New Orleans for a couple of weeks, when he hopes to set up camp and begin recording his full-length. He then heads to Finland for shows in March with trumpeter Jukka Eskola and saxophonist Timo Lassy, who in 2022 had traveled to New Orleans to record with Guerin, Herlin Riley, Delfeayo Marsalis and others.
Guerin will be back in New Orleans in time for Jazz Fest, and he hopes to release his album later this year.
“I don’t want to wait or lag on it,” he says with a laugh. “I have enough music for like 20 more albums.”
Find Guerin’s music at rolandguerin.com
Roland Guerin keeps good company. A master of six-string bass, he put the bottom in Allen Toussaint’s band during the composer-pianist-producer’s second act as a world-traveling concert artist. Guerin spent 2017, Dr. John’s final year of performing, as the singer-pianist’s bandleader. This fall, Guerin is touring Europe with the virtuoso hard-rock guitarist Paul Gilbert. His prestigious sideman work further includes Marcus Roberts, John Scofield, Mark Whitfield, George Benson, Ellis Marsalis, Gerry Mulligan and Jimmy Scott.
Moreover, in addition to being an in-demand bassist, Guerin writes, sings, plays and produces his own music. On October 18, Louisiana Red Hot Records will release his latest solo album, Grass Roots. The album mirrors Guerin’s broad and surprising influences. He sings lead for the project as well as multi-tracked clouds of backing vocals. The other Grass Roots players include Mike Esneault, piano; Chris Atkins, guitar; and drummers Herman LeBeaux Jr. and John Jones.
Grass Roots’ tracks include two Prince-like pop-rhythm-and-blues songs, “Running on Nightfumes” and “Inside Outside Upside Down;” the Peter Gabriel-inspired “Summer Moon”; the adventurous, almost rock of “Stick to the Basics” (with lyrics by Allen Toussaint); and the jazz-rock hybrid piece “To the Edge of Something.”
Lilli Lewis, head of the artist-and-repertoire department at Louisiana Red Hot Records—and an accomplished musician in her own right—said the subtlety and cinematic beauty in Guerin’s music persuaded her to sign him. “It’s as universal as anything any other New Orleans master might produce, but also wholly unto its own,” Lewis said. “Roland considers himself a New Orleans roots musician, but what he’s produced here is timeless and 100 percent unexpected.”
Guerin has named the album and his band Grass Roots. “Because it says so much,” he said. “Everybody wants to put titles on this and a genre on that. They want it to fit in a box. But life isn’t in a box.”
On stage, the Grass Roots band can go anywhere. “That’s the vibe,” Guerin said. “Pop, jazz, blues. In Allen’s band, we would go everywhere—because there’s such richness in New Orleans and the world. Rhythm-and-blues, rock and roll, blues, Mahalia Jackson, gospel, Louis Armstrong and what folks call jazz, the African heritage from Congo Square, the Cuban rhythms. All these things are here.”
His Grass Roots album’s title song, Guerin said, “is about family. When a child is born, their roots can be long if the parents know where the family came from. All those things, where we come from, help us to be who we are.”
Family is a priority for the 50-year-old Guerin these days. He and his screenwriter wife, Laura, are the parents of a baby girl, Malia Neve Guerin. Guerin turned down a summer tour with Paul Gilbert this year to be present for his daughter’s birth in June.
Guerin comes from a musical family in Baton Rouge. His father loved jazz and classical music. His mother played bass in blues and zydeco bands. Guerin played guitar before switching to electric bass and later, upright acoustic bass in the jazz program at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. His interests went far beyond jazz, though, veering into a broad spectrum of popular music including Cameo, The Dazz Band, Rush, Gerry Rafferty, America, Booker T. & The M.G.’s and The Police.
At Southern University in Baton Rouge, Guerin pursued a marketing degree while studying jazz with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, the school’s beloved jazz pedagogue from New Orleans. “Mr. Bat taught us things nobody else could,” Guerin said. “He didn’t try to change you or box you up in a rigid, repetitive thing.”
After college, Guerin performed with jazz pianist Marcus Roberts from 1994 to 2008. He played bass for many albums, too, including the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Grammy Award- winning Down in New Orleans and Allen Toussaint’s 1996 recording, Connected.
In 2008, Guerin played spot gigs with Toussaint when the band’s regular bassist couldn’t make it. Toussaint’s son, manager and percussionist, Clarence “Reginald” Toussaint, soon invited him to be the group’s permanent bassist. It was easy to say yes. Recalling his reaction to the offer to work with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who’d written, produced and arranged so many classic recordings, Guerin said, “I was like, ‘Man, this is a dream.’ We shared things and I discovered more and more about him. I was drawn further and further in.”
Toussaint wrote the words for “Stick to the Basics,” one of Guerin’s Grass Roots songs. “He handed me the lyrics at a rehearsal,” Guerin recalled. “He even signed them. He signed everything. His penmanship was impeccable. And when he notated whatever he was hearing in his head, it looked like it had been printed by a scripted program.”
Toussaint is also responsible for Guerin’s return to singing lead. “Scared the daylights out of me,” Guerin said of Toussaint’s request that he sing lead for a song during the maestro’s concerts. “But in the same breath that I would have said ‘no’ I said ‘yes’.”
During a rehearsal for Guerin’s first lead vocal spot, Toussaint gave his bassist a masterclass in singing. “He stopped the band and walked over to me,” Guerin remembered. “Mr. Toussaint asked me, ‘Are you living what you’re singing? Live what you sing. Do that.’ That stuck with me like I don’t know what. When Allen talked about things, it was about the life in whatever it was. ‘Are you connected with that? Is that part of you? Are you living that story? Because that’s what’s going to touch the people.’ I kept going further and further with that, in my head and my heart. Music is human. It’s an extension of us.”
The always-studious Toussaint even helped Guerin expand his bass soloing. “Allen would practice all the time,” Guerin recalled. “He figured that he had to play something at least 100 times before it started feeling comfortable in his hands. And he had perfect pitch. If you played something for him, he’d play it right back at you.”
Two years after Toussaint’s unexpected death at 77 in November 2015, Guerin joined another New Orleans music star’s band. In January 2017, he became bassist and bandleader for Dr. John’s Nite Trippers, performing alongside one of the city’s great drummers, Herlin Riley.
“They got something that I always feel in my spirit,” Dr. John said of Guerin and Riley before his final appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “Everything that is good about my band is better with them guys.” “We would get into some grooves,” Guerin remembered. “With something that good, I’d chuckle, I’d laugh.”
Guerin and Riley are mutually appreciative of their respective talents. “Roland is an impeccable musician who pays attention to the details and subtle nuances of the music,” Riley said. “He is a consummate professional who shows up on time, with a pleasant attitude, the spirit of camaraderie and musical fellowship. Whatever the musical setting, he always plays the right notes with the right feeling to solidify the foundation of the rhythm section. When Roland is on the gig, I am relaxed and comfortable, because I know the bass playing will be solid as a rock.”
“When I think about that New Orleans drum sound, there are Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell,” Guerin said of Riley. “I still play with Shannon. He’s the one who taught me about New Orleans traditional music. The bass and the drums are at the heart of it. And I’ve been playing with Herlin for a long time, so there’s that hook-up and that freedom within the beat. Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John] loved it.”
Simpatico on the bandstand though Guerin was with Dr. John, their relationship was quite different from the deep connection the bassist developed over a much longer time with Toussaint. “With Allen it was a lot more like family. We were very close. We felt things without saying anything or calling it something. With Dr. John, he shared stories in that honest, childlike, matter of fact way that was just so funny and real. His playing had that in it, too. And the way he looked at life and people, he saw exactly what was going on. A lot of people thought he was a little slow, but, man, he checked everything out. On stage, I’d see him looking at me, listening to everything. He saw everything.”
Before every gig with Dr. John, Guerin said, “We’d all hold hands and say a prayer. And that’s the vibe. He wanted all of us to let go and let the music happen. It didn’t have to be any way other than whatever it was. Not like it should be something or it had to be something—just let it be.”
Sometimes, Guerin noticed Dr. John slowing down in his last year of touring. “But what he was playing was golden,” the bassist said. “His love and life always came out. And he would still play stuff that nobody else could play, way beyond what somebody else could do on their off nights. There was no taking away from who he was.”
Dr. John’s “roll with it” mantra reinforced Guerin’s own natural tendency to follow his own drummer. “Especially with that vibe of not caring, but caring all the same,” he said. “A lot of people in my life told me what wouldn’t work and what shouldn’t work. I went around them and made it work. I’m not worrying about what somebody else thinks or waiting for somebody else’s stamp of approval.”
“Performing in an array of settings, the New Orleans bassist has always displayed his versatility. Noted for his slap-bass technique on the upright, an old-school style that he modernized and made his own, Guerin is equally adept at adding punch and funk on the electric. […] For Guerin, A Different World doesn’t exist too far away from his jazz home. He isn’t swingin’ but he’s sure not smoothin’."
“Back To The Fest” – Offbeat Magazine
“When most bassists solo, they merely elaborate the supporting parts they usually play, not realizing how pointless those parts can be without something to support. Roland Guerin, by contrast, knows how to shift gears from comping to soloing. When Guerin joined pianist Marcus Roberts for an unaccompanied duet on Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started” at the Jazz Tent, for example, he stopped playing harmony and began playing melody. And what a strong melody it was, beginning in the crisply articulated original theme and then developing into smartly shaped variations.”
“Roland Guerin” – JazzTimes
“Dynamic Louisiana musician Roland Guerin is among a handful of musicians who've demonstrated remarkable prowess and prodigious technique on both acoustic and electric basses.”
“The Winds of the New Land by Roland Guerin” – Jazz Review
“On this new release composed completely by Roland we are thoroughly and completely taken over by a composer's efforts to create a literal piece of art. […] I believe that Roland Guerin is making a name for himself right next to the great Charles Mingus. I'm sure we will hear more from this talented musician / composer. I can't wait for Roland's next release!”