How have you opened a new door on the harmonica?
Maybe I opened a new door...we'll see what happens next. It happened also by the simple fact that I was invited to be part of certain musical experiences, musical journeys that were requiring a new kind of playing. It forced me, almost, to go in that direction. Not really forced me, but it really invited me, I would say is a better word. Exactly like Steve Coleman. Because that was early on. I was like 22, 23. So he called me to do some stuff. His music, you gotta play a different way than Toots or Stevie.
I was trying to find something. I was listening to his music, to all his records, listening to the phrasing. I was really studying the different concepts he was using at the time. ..'cause he's evolving all the time. It inspired me to work really, really hard and try to find a language that could work with his music on the harmonica.
And it's the same thing with every person whom I've played with. Like Cassandra Wilson - a totally different language. She was also part of the M-base movement. You get more of that folk music/jazz. And I just wanted to find a really pure way of playing that could really work, at the same time being completely free 'cause that's what really moves me in music, is to have freedom.
And the same thing when I play with Pat [Metheny]. I had to find the language that was really perfect for his music. Same thing with Herbie [Hancock]. Same thing with Charlie Hunter - being part of the horn section was new. I had to really think about it and really try to understand my role and go with it. Also in terms of the playing, I was trying to work on different things. So it's always been like that, basically.
What was it like playing the harmonica on the Pat Metheny Group album The Way Up?
On the harmonica, it was really orchestral. It was one color amongst many other colors. That's the way I would look at it. It was somewhat close to the voice, in a sense. So one instrument has got that "breath" thing that another instrument doesn't have. They liked to mix that up with all kinds of different timbers and instruments. I don't think that I had a particular role in it other than coming in with different colors. I was playing all kinds of harmonica. On the record, I played some bass harmonica, some stuff on the low register (4-octave), and then the regular harmonica I use which is the 3-octave. And then also some diatonic, too (at the very end.)
Pat Metheny's The Way Up is a 75-minute composed piece that you memorized. How did you memorize such a large amount of complex music?
Memory was part of the requirement. But for me it's really better to do it like that. I like it better. With Pat Metheny, we were playing that for about a year. To me it's normal to know the music. To do one gig, it might be a little extreme to learn all this music. But when you start to have basically one gig employing you for the entire year, I think it's normal to know the music. And if you don't know it exactly by heart for the first two concerts, you'll know it very quickly because we were playing so much. We were playing like six times a week. But I knew it before we even started rehearsing. I knew everything by heart.
But it's the same thing when I got to play with Herbie [Hancock]. I didn't have any music. Maybe I had a sheet of music for one tune, not really to look at but just to make sure, there was maybe a section that had to do something that was a bit tricky. I don't even believe so. I don't think I had any music actually. Because to me, it's the same thing. We were out for a couple of months.
What's your philosophy on memorizing music?
You are able to merge yourself much more into the music when you really know it by heart. That's when you start, to me, to get ... the doors are opening for you to explore something maybe new or fresh. If you're always reading, there's something about it that makes you kind of stay in a certain place. It's less about feeling. I don't think I play with the same freedom when I'm reading or when I know the music by heart.
It's the same thing with a standard. If you really know a standard, you really know it. I'm not talking about just playing it but if you really know the standard, you're going to be able to be much freer in terms of your interpretation and the way you can explore different things and really go into different aspects of the music than if you're just reading it. Even if you had played it a few times but it's still reading it. It's not the same.
Tonight we're going to play a tune - a standard - "The Man I Love." And there's no music. Nobody has any music for that. We just play it by heart. That's what makes us be able to go places and just be able to venture into different horizons, basically.
How have Stevie Wonder and Toots Thielemans' influenced you?
Of course, Stevie was huge. Like Toots, obviously. But I never really studied them in depth in terms of their playing. Like learning exactly everything they were playing or doing. I was just a great admirer and a big fan. I really loved their playing. But I was trying to step out of just copying them. So I really listened to other musicians as well.
You played in a horn section on one of guitarist Charlie Hunter's albums. What's the role of the harmonica in a horn section?
Lee Oskar was probably one of the first to do that [play harmonica in a horn section] with War. For me, it was really interesting. That gig (with Charlie Hunter) really taught me how to blend in with two different instruments, being part of a horn section and basically replace the trumpet. Obviously I don't have the power trumpet has. Harmonica changed the whole thing completely. It's not better or worse - it's just completely different. I just needed to have that cut-through attitude because I was that higher voice that needed to come through in terms of definition.
Why did you pick the song "The Man I Love" and have Cassandra Wilson sing it? (on the Grégoire Maret album)
I just love that song. I basically thought of this arrangement for Cassandra Wilson so when I decided to do this record, I looked at the music that I had, different tunes I arranged or wrote and I thought this tune could really fit on this record. And having her voice on this record would be perfect. I also wanted to look back at what I did. She's been a very important part of my musical life so I thought it was very normal and actually special to have her as a guest on there. She accepted the invitation. And that arrangement was written for her so it was a perfect occasion.
Why did you pick Stevie Wonder's song "The Secret Life of Plants" (on the Grégoire Maret album)?
I was thinking about a tune of Stevie's, that may be a bit more obscure, not the most famous ones. Not like "Isn't She Lovely" or something like that. And I thought this song was absolutely gorgeous. Not the most known. And it's a very interesting tune to explore on the harmonica, just instrumentally. Both solo-wise and also just in terms of the melody and the chords and what's going on. There are a lot of tunes - he's got so many tunes. I could have chosen something else, but I thought that maybe for this first record that was a good choice.
On your album, you played "The Secret Life of Plants" in C#m, the same as Stevie Wonder, "Travels" in the same key as Pat Metheny and "The Man I Love" in the same key as The Real Book. What's your philosophy on playing songs in the original key?
If somebody writes a tune in a certain key, I'll try to play it in that key. And then if it doesn't work, I may change it. But most likely, I'll play it in the original key. I think that there's something about it, if it was written in that key, it makes sense to play it in that key.
Why did you pick the song "Travels" by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays (on the Grégoire Maret album)?
Here again, I just thought it would be nice to do a little tribute in a sense because I played with him and he's been a big influence. Him and Lyle Mays. So I thought this song in particular was a good choice because it's got a really lyrical quality and it's just a beautiful song. So I decided to do it.
How did playing with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays influence you?
Being part of the Pat Metheny Group, both Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays write the music together, arrange the music, and produce the music. So they are both influential in the way they arrange stuff. I was really influenced by both of them.
Two Ivan Lins songs and one Milton Nascimento song are on the album. Tell me about Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento and the Brazilian influence.
I'm a huge fan of Ivan Lins. He's just a genius of melodies. But that's a really very Brazilian approach. Milton, I'm a big fan of Milton Nascimento. He's got the same real connection to melodies. Harmonica is a real melodic instrument. I can play out and do all kinds of crazy stuff on the instrument, but there's nothing like playing a pretty melody on this instrument. That's another thing that I really wanted to explore on this record was to just play pretty melodies.
He's been also, compositionally speaking, influenced by his culture, the Brazilian culture, and his sensibility is just magical. I listen to his music all the time. He's really, to me, one of the great composers of his generation. He's one of the best. He's completely under-appreciated. He and Milton are, to me, two of the greatest composers in Brazil. They're just incredible.
How do you use the bass harmonica and chord harmonica?
It's just a color to me. The way I use it is a color. I use also the tremolo chromatic sometimes; it's another color. I use the chord harmonica rarely, but it happens. And it's also another color. I just use those as colors. And then the regular chromatic is just nice. I haven't recorded anything yet on the chord harmonica, but I've played live. I will, I will. The music didn't call for it yet.
What advice do you have for jazz harmonica players?
I mean, just to find their voices. It's nice to hear people that come with something really original. The thing that's really so exciting and incredible about both Stevie and Toots is that they are so original. It's so magical, the way they play because they are just really unique. So if somebody comes along and has that quality of really coming with something brand new and fresh, that's exciting for everybody. So that's what I would recommend, if possible.
Rob Fletcher is a chromatic harmonica player based in Erving, MA. He plays chromatic, chord and diatonic in the harmonica trio The Harmaniacs. He also performs throughout New England in a variety of settings on guitar and voice (www.toasttown.com). Rob founded a corporate team building and training company called Quixote Consulting that specializes in music-based team building. He often writes about the power of music to help people lead stronger, happier lives in his blog At Your Best.