Jazz bassist Roland Guerin began his musical sojourn on viola, switched to guitar and ended up on bass: “Guitar kind of felt natural to me. But when I felt a bass under my fingers, it felt right. The strings were all big, the tone was deep. It was something—I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’
“The bass is a very melodic instrument. It’s got a different voice because it’s deeper. It’s not tuned like a guitar. I actually do not like playing guitar, I would rather play a six-stringed bass. You can play chords and everything. That low B string on a five- or six-string bass is great.
“If you look at the history of the bass, if you go back to Europe and actually see these different instruments, they had some skinny, low-shoulder basses with a bunch of different strings on them. Some had six, seven, eight strings—whatever. Some had three.”
On his latest album, Groove, Swing & Harmony, Guerin also sings, contributing an original number entitled “Growing,” which is “about me, I guess. I’m growing as a young man, I’m learning all the time, I’m constantly growing musically, I’m growing spiritually. Then when I look back—that’s part of the lyrics—I can see the distance, I can see how I’m growing. Not to look back and turn back, and go back in the past. But to look at the past and see what I’ve accomplished. It helps me to go forward.”
Among Guerin’s accomplishments are six years in guitarist Mark Whitfield’s band, and his current tenure with pianist Marcus Roberts. In June, Roberts and Guerin performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, for an audience of 22,000. The recital (including Gershwin’s Concerto in F, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I Got Rhythm,” and Roberts’ “Cole After Midnight”) was broadcast live on German television, and will eventually be aired on PBS.
In the decidedly secular world of jazz, Guerin calls his music Christian jazz: “I look at it, even if I’m playing a song that I didn’t write, I’m playing it because I like the song, for one—the changes or the melody is something that I can connect with. When I’m playing the song, the way I view it, I see the love of God coming down through me, using me through the instrument, out to the people.
“There’s no way that I can change anybody. All I can do is do what I believe and if I feel that it’s right, then hopefully, people can look at that and maybe see a choice that can work. There’s a number of different things that are going to work for people. Some people may just go straight down the street and get to the stop sign. Some folks may go, ‘Wait a minute—there’s a stop over here. Let me go over here first. Then go over here and then get to the stop sign that way.’ It’s an individual thing.”
As for Louis Armstrong, Guerin admits that, back in the days when he was grooving to Rick Springfield, Yes, Toto, Con-Funk-Shun and the Gap Band, Satchmo was not his personal epitome of cool: “When I was younger, I was a knucklehead, a hardhead. My high school music teacher, Mr. Fortier, would tell me about Louis Armstrong, tell me about Duke Ellington, that I would have to learn this because it would enrich me. I didn’t do it.
“It wasn’t until later on, when I started checking out what Louis Armstrong was doing: I was like, ‘This is not easy.’ What he’s doing is hard, but it’s really hip. It’s not only hip, it’s pure because when he played, he played exactly what he wanted. It wasn’t a bunch of other stuff. In its own entity, it was flashy, it was very strong, it was very melodic, it was masterful—he played up and down his horn, it was very controlled, soulful, lyrical. Everything was in it.
“When I started checking it out, that’s what I started learning about. This is one of the highest forms of playing. There’s an interview with John Coltrane and he said he was using all these devices, playing all kinds of stuff, so that he can get to a lyrical line, so that he can get to the meat of what he wanted to say. Those devices, over a period of time, are going to take him there. That’s where Louis Armstrong was, in his singing and his leadership and his playing. He had the whole package.”