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.”