By Rob Fletcher
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.
When you hear the word harmonica, what's the next word that comes to mind? For many, it's the word toy. And, in fact, that was the official designation by the Musician's Union throughout most of the last century. Nearly everyone I talk with has one at home somewhere. Harmonica may also be thought of as something relegated to blues music or played on a rack while strumming folk guitar.
The story of this mysterious instrument is more interesting than that. Swiss-born harmonica player Grégoire Maret plays the chromatic harmonica, an instrument that is a mere six inches long that plays every note on the chromatic scale for three octaves. It's the only instrument that can be played by breathing out and in. It has the range of a flute and has a side button that allows the player to access one of two harmonicas inside - one in C and one in C#. Its proximity to the player's face allows no visual reference points for the player, making it an extremely difficult instrument to master. And almost impossible for an audience to see how all that music is being made - it's a magical act.
Grégoire Maret is at the very front of a very small group of musicians known as modern jazz harmonica players. The "big two" in the jazz chromatic harmonica world are Toots Thielemans (Toots mentored Grégoire when he was only 17 and plays a duet on Maret's eponymous album Grégoire Maret) and Stevie Wonder. (Before there was jazz harmonica the Harmonicats - a harmonica trio featuring chromatic harmonica, chord harmonica and bass harmonica - had a #1 hit in 1947 with their song Peg O' My Heart. You can listen to a performance on YouTube here (hearing it will enlighten you as to how different popular music was 70 years ago) but I recommend also checking out this fiery performance of theirs on the Jack Parr show.) Toots has regularly won the 'Miscellaneous' category of DownBeat magazine (the category title itself says a lot about the public's bewilderment of what to do with the harmonica), including 2012.
Grégoire Maret Leads the Way On the Modern Jazz Harmonica
Maret knows this harmonica history, but is most interested in the future. When I interviewed him before the show he said, "Of course, Stevie was a huge influence. 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. 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. When somebody has that quality of really coming up with something brand new and fresh, that's exciting for everybody."
The last time I saw Grégoire Maret play was as a duo with a guitar player a few years ago in Sacramento, California at the annual Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) Convention. (Imagine five days of nothing but harmonicas and harmonica players/nuts and you get an idea of what a SPAH convention is like.) Since 1998, Maret has appeared on more than 75 recordings as a sideman, playing with everyone from Pat Metheny to Herbie Hancock to Cassandra Wilson. His first album was released in 2012 and he's just starting to step out as a band leader. So I was triply excited to see Maret's quartet light up the Vermont Jazz Center, my musical home.
The quartet took to the stage, all playing rhythm instruments. For the next few hours - two very long sets of music - they took us on an unforgettable journey. No words were spoken, only the cinematic ebbs and flows of song into song, solo into solo. I was reminded of a Pat Metheny show (Maret recorded with Pat Metheny on the album The Way Up and can be seen on tour with him on The Way Up concert DVD).
Vermont Jazz Center director Eugene Uman told the audience before the show, "It pays to have patience." Our patience was rewarded, again and again. From the smallest, fragile, intimate initial sounds of a song grew emotional climax after emotional climax in an organic development. There were no breaks between songs - each song blended into the next. Although all four players are masters of their respective instruments, there was no need for anyone to show off. In fact, there was a surprising amount of time where two or more members of the quartet weren't playing at all - which contributed to the extremely wide dynamic range. They controlled the dynamics with volume but also density and sparseness of notes and also instruments. Everyone got a chance to shine individually (often alone) at one point in the show but it was all within the service of a larger whole of musical truth, soul and emotion.
I saw an incredible amount of wordless communication and connection among the musicians - lots of urging each other on. There were very few charts on stage and a whole lot of eye contact. They played as a group. No one left the stage if they weren't playing, or didn't pay attention or even worse talk to someone else in the band while someone was soloing (all three are pet peeves of mine that rear their ugly heads at various jazz jam sessions and even some performances). We got a sense that everyone in the band was 'all in', all there, and all on the same journey.
Grégoire Maret on stage
The stage was set up as a triangle, leaving a lot of space for Maret to roam. At the beginning of songs, he stood completely still, playing quietly. As the dynamic intensity of a song progressed, he would crouch down while playing, or bob and weave like a boxer. He prowled the open space, paced, jumped and most memorably at the height of a solo crowded into the drums, legs splayed, face to face with Clarence Penn bashing away in synchronicity with him, each urging the other to go further and deeper into the heart of the music. He combined the virtuosity of a jazz player with the emotional abandon more often found in a jam band or in a blues harmonica player. It was a powerful balm to see such delight on stage.
He was a subtle, confident leader, leading silently with gestures and glances, more often taking a back stage to the musician who was being featured. He played a lot of notes (a lot of notes!) but only in short, peak moments. I was surprised at how often he wasn't playing and how much space he put into the music. That space and emptiness, especially at the beginning of songs, allowed the music to breathe, and the audience to breathe with it. His respect for that space was echoed in the rest of the band, bringing to mind a phrase of Picasso's: "power in reserve."
As a jazz harmonica player, I also found it to be like taking a lesson with a master of my instrument. What a blessing to feel like the way is clearer, that more is possible than one first imagined. Maret affirmed that beauty trumps 'chops', that mastery guided by emotion and spirit leads us to musical truth. And that no matter what instrument we play, we can express who we are and how important it is to bring something new to the instrument.
Most of the songs were taken from Maret's album. It was all in the land of modern jazz - all straight-eighth music - no swing or bebop. The one standard in the set was re-harmonized and re-worked. He started the first set with his Crepuscule Suite (crepuscule means 'twilight'), which morphed into keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Peña's song "Fifteen", which blended into drummer Gene Lake's song "Life Track". Later, he played an instrumental version of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love", a song that Cassandra Wilson sang on his album. Maret closed out the first set with his lovely, brightly Brazilian-flavored song "Manhã Du Sol".
The second set started quietly with Stevie Wonder's lovely ballad "The Secret Life of Plants". In the interview prior to the show, Grégoire told me, "This song is absolutely gorgeous and 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."
Grégoire then played an as-yet-unrecorded ballad of his simply entitled "Why". Along the way, he also played his song "Lucilla's Dream" and finished the night with the memorable Milton Nascimento song "Ponta De Areia". He told me, "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. Another thing that I really wanted to explore on this record was to just play pretty melodies....Ivan Lins and Milton are, to me, some of the greatest composers in Brazil. They're just incredible."
The Musicians in the Quartet
Maret's musical partner is pianist and keyboard player Federico Gonzalez Peña. Peña was born in Uruguay and now hails from the Washington DC area. I got a sense of power in reserve as he played, switching back and forth between piano and keyboard, often at the same time. His focus was on delighting in the beauty and texture of the sound. And even more impressive, he was looking up how to access sounds from the borrowed keyboard which he had never played before on his smart phone - while playing! His philosophy: "...It's important to have intentions that are based on one's truth. There has to be a strong belief in what one's doing, at least in the initial impulse. If I miss the mark, that's okay - at least my heart was in the right place. I'm open to any which way a piece of music reveals itself. I would like for people to walk away and feel that we touched them. If we can surprise them a bit and enrich their lives in some small way, then I'm good."
Drummer Clarence Penn was into it fully from the first touch of his sticks (or his ProMark Broomsticks - a version of brushes made with broom bristle. He knew he was in Vermont when I asked him if they were made of wheat). Whether playing whisper quiet or bashing away Elvin Jones-style his body language -and his 'funk face' - told us that he was fully engaged. Penn's philosophy is summed up with his words: "I think that the drums are beautiful and I want to show people that drums can be beautiful. I don't have to play everything so loudly for you to understand."
The last time I saw young bass player Ben Williams was on stage last summer with the Pat Metheny Unity Band when they headlined the Newport Jazz Festival. I was excited to see him on the bill. Mainly playing the Fender electric bass, he also took a deeply exploratory unaccompanied solo on acoustic bass as an introduction to George Gershwin's song "The Man I Love". Williams said, "When you play a bass, the whole instrument vibrates. It almost feels like the spirit of another human being. It's like dancing with somebody and being in full contact with them. And the sound of the instrument appealed to me. It's warm and deep and it resonated with me."
And now, the last words from Grégoire: "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."
At the beginning of the second set, Eugene Uman told the crowd, "Isn't it wonderful to be in the company of magicians!" For one chilly January night, we got a dose of musical freedom...in the company of magicians.
See Grégoire Maret live in the following YouTube clips
Grégoire Maret Quartet featuring Toots Thielemans! II
Grégoire Maret 4tet - 'Crepuscule' by Grégoire Maret
GRÉGOIRE MARET QUARTET LIVE @ JAZZ L'F (Dinant - Belgium) FEB.5th, 2011
Grégoire Maret "Crepuscule" RTS Label Suisse 2010 Production
Japan Benefit Concert - Grégoire Maret, Lionel Loueke, Richard Bona, Ferenc Nemeth
Grégoire Maret Quartet "Lucilla's Dream" @ musig-im-ochsen. Muri
Grégoire Maret Live at the 2012 Litchfield Jazz Festival
Grégoire Maret with Herbie Hancock KKL Luzern 3.11.2008
Grégoire Maret Plays the Suzuki G-48 Chromatic Harmonica