To say that Roland Guerin has an impressive jazz resume would be an understatement. Let's see - Roland has toured and performed with John Scofield, Gerry Mulligan, George Benson, Allan Toussaint, Ellis Marsalis, and many others, and recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama on their Grammy award winning album "Down in New Orleans". Roland as a bandleader has a new album, "Grass Roots", coming in 2017. Whew - Roland is one busy bass player (need further proof? Look here). Fortunately for readers of Merry & Bright, Roland found a few moments to share some insights into the creation and recording of "Christmastime in New Orleans". I am extraordinarily pleased to bring you the following interview with Roland Guerin, NOLA Players bassist.
Merry & Bright: Hello and Merry Christmas! Thanks for taking a few minutes of time for Q&A about the NOLA Players and the swingin’ new album “Christmastime in New Orleans”.
Roland Guerin: Thank you!
MB: To start, who is the mastermind behind The NOLA Players? How did he (or she) convince this amazing group of musicians to come together to record a Christmas album?
Roland Guerin: Mastermind . ... Monica Fitzgibbons first had the initial idea. She and her husband, Kevin, who run the record company had the musical vision and had long wanted to do a project like this in honor of her Grandmother who was an accomplished jazz pianist- so she was dedicated to a piano/rhythm section central sound, with a nod to New Orleans and then contacted Jim who then contacted Mike Esneault who was the musical director who then had ideas on who to call for the actual band. The details were worked out between the 3 of them and then there we all were with them and they brought in Chris Alder and Dave Farrell and his team to record the album in 3 days at The Seanger.
MB: An 18-piece band is pretty amazing, especially with this caliber of musicians all coming together to play. Did the recruiting of the group happen from within, where you got one player signed up, and he called two buddies, and they called a couple more buddies until the entire ensemble came together?
Roland Guerin: You can surely say that the recruiting of the band happened from within but not entirely in that way. Mike really took time and thought about the music and the band together, Monica and Jim had some guys they wanted and Mike found the perfect blend. Anytime you have the opportunity to put together a team of people you should think about it as a relationship. In any relationship on any level you need to be to speak in a way that you are understood but to also be able to listen to, hear and understand with a level of openness and willingness to participate. Greatness goes far beyond natural talent;-)
MB: The performances on the album are astounding. The playing is tight and refined, yet there is so much energy and swing going on! What were the recording sessions like? What was it like to put together the Bass parts?
Roland Guerin: Well, for one, I didn't put together the bass parts... Mike did;-) But what I was able to do is actually on my inner freedom to interpret the feel and energy from within and apply it to the given notes... which was a lotta fun:-) Especially with all these guys! Fun and freedom are the words for the day. I know that as a bassist my job is support and also to help make whoever I'm playing with sound the best they can through my bass lines and concepts of harmony, rhythm etc... When you have a group of folks together that not only play their parts well but they get what I'm doing... they hear, respond to it and engage in the conversation. Well shoot that's like musical heaven :-)
Of course the opposite is like everyone playing for themselves loudly and not listening at all;-) That's like.....
MB: Is there a difference between recording a Christmas album and a traditional jazz album? Is there, pun slightly intended, a different spirit when Christmas songs are being performed?
Roland Guerin: Hahahaha! The main difference is that usually if you're recording a Christmas album you know you're gonna play great songs... at least if they are among the classics;-) Just because an album is a jazz album it doesn't automatically mean that the songs are great or even good for that matter! Great songs are great songs and they can generally be played in almost any style imaginable because they are great songs. Mike did a fantastic job of his arrangements and interpretations of these great songs. From the band point of view everyone started out by having a deep love and appreciation for these songs from childhood on so we were definitely able to tap into a mixture of feelings and emotions that brought not only new life but also and strong feeling of joy to the music and to each other.
MB: This is an album where a track list of well-known, traditional Christmas songs really works, because the arranger, producer, and band are putting such unique and fresh takes on the songs. “Christmas in New Orleans” is an obvious choice for this record, but I was still glad to see it featured, as it’s an underplayed Christmas masterpiece. Can you share some insight about the song selections for the album?
Roland Guerin: In talking with Monica, she and Kevin put together the track selections and from there she and Mike went back and forth on the arrangements over a period of months. She would work with Mike and give feedback going back and forth until it was where they both felt good about being able to make it special- and the two of them worked it all out. According to Monica- Mike being the incredible talent he is, was absolutely perfect for this album- they worked very well together and then Mike in getting the arrangements set in advance- the charts for the tunes and we had the freedom to bring our own identity to those charts ...as he said about making this album... "how could you say no?" Monica mentioned- regarding the song "Christmas in New Orleans"- that during the licensing conversations with the writer of that song- she enjoyed getting to know Richard Sherman (of Mary Poppins/Disney fame)- he apparently had some fun stories about writing that song back in the day in July in Los Angeles and then running it over to Decca Studios the day before Louis Armstrong was doing that session with The Benny Carter Orchestra. I love those stories and we enjoyed this arrangement of it. The tempo for our version was actually Chris Alder's (from Germany!) idea, our producer. In the session he wanted to slow it down and have it match the New Orleans rhythm. We gave it a try and it clicked!
MB: Jason Marsalis is one of The NOLA Players, on vibes and percussion, making his presence known quickly just a few bars into “Silver Bells”, the album’s opening track. The liner notes inform that pianist Mike Esneault was a pupil of Ellis Marsalis. Also I see you have played with Ellis. Can you describe the influence of the Marsalis family on this collection of musicians?
Roland Guerin: hehehe, If you look at the Marsalis Family DVD.... I'm the only non-Marsalis;-) I suppose in looking at any part of life history you take note of the contributions that were made and then it's weighed in reflection to how beneficial it was or is to society. The contributions to music that have been made and shared by this one particular family have been vast to say the least... spearheaded from Ellis on down and it's an ongoing thing....they're not done ;-)
New Orleans has and has had numerous influential families that have made generous and very important musical contributions to the world. Jason's presence and musicianship definitely aided in the awareness of not only what these great families have shared but also the connection that we all have in the sharing of musical moments.
MB: Christmas music can reach emotions that most other genres can’t – nostalgia, comfort, gladness and joy, a sense of home. There have been some hard times in Louisiana this year. Do you hope that “Christmastime in New Orleans” can bring some positivity and hope to all listeners through the uplifting spirit that comes through in the music?
Roland Guerin: Well, I'd say that the world as a whole is going through a bit of an interesting time. To me music is meant to move people. Christmas music is generally written to move people in a positive way. I wouldn't say that Christmas music can move people in ways that other genres can't because I don't put it past someone to have the perfect amount of talent to write a bad Christmas song:-) The time of year doesn't make a song great just like cooking in the best kitchen in world and using the best ingredients won't automatically yield a great meal....
These songs are great and they happen to be Christmas songs that on this album were played with respect, in friendship along with the feeling of family and love. I do hope and strongly believe that those who hear this album will be able feel all of this in the music and be moved in ways that will bring a smile to their heart.
MB: Roland, you have played with the likes of Mark Whitfield, Dr. John, Marcus Roberts, John Scofield, Allen Toussaint and many others. You also have your own solo career. What was different about playing with The NOLA Players for this project and is this a one-shot gig for The NOLA Players? Or can we hope for another (or 2, or 3) albums in the future?
Roland Guerin: Yes, I've been blessed to have played with and learned from a number of great musicians and people. Playing with The NOLA Players is to me an extension of this in its own way. Some of the members may not have the fame and/or name weight of others but what they are able to do on their instruments with their voice speaks for itself. Most of the people that I have had the pleasure to share the stage with have been not only great musicians but great human beings as well. With The NOLA Players I was very pleased that I was able to have a continuation of this;-)
MB: “Christmastime in New Orleans” is a fantastic album. I love snow and wintertime, but listening to it makes me want to take a trip to The Big Easy for a heaping bowl of Christmas Eve gumbo! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions.
Roland Guerin: You're very welcome! It was my pleasure! Also, don't just say that... We're now expecting you to come on down and eat!!! Not just gumbo either... there's all sorts of great food to dive into;-) The doors are always open here!