Jazz Notes: Grégoire Maret Takes the Harmonica Into a World It’s Never Been Before
By Dan Ouellette, ZEAL Senior Editor, March 31, 2016
It can fit into your pocket (an iPhone of sound), and it can de dismissed as a toy instrument that someone gifted you with when you were a child. A zip of notes and it’s set aside for something real—like a guitar or a saxophone. It’s rare in jazz—so rare that when jazz mags deliver their polls of best artists each year, it gets categorized into the “Miscellaneous” slot along with musicians playing conch shells and the banjo.
The harmonica gets no respect, but when you hear a maestro playing one, it’s an astounding experience—a new orchestral world of colors and rhythms and harmonies that defy what other instruments can achieve.
Welcome to harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, an original who explores the voice of his instrument with a new level of sonic sensibility. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1975 in a family where his Swiss father played music with a circle of friends and his Harlem-born African-American mother was steeped in the music of her day and culture. As far as musicianship goes, Maret was relatively a late learner who took to his chosen instrument only when he was 15 after experiencing ecstasy and a soulful epiphany from hearing harps being played at a concert of blues bands. Maret says he knew nothing of the instrument but that it touched him profoundly. “I used to sing a lot when I was younger,” he says. “So, the harmonica reminded me of that and intrigued me. I began to develop my ear.”
But first Maret had to learn how to truly play one. He started off on the diatonic harmonica—with its seven-note scale used primarily by blues, folk and country musicians. But quickly, by the time he turned 17, he advanced to the more complex and more versatile chromatic harmonica, used primarily by jazz and classical musicians because it could be played using standard music notation. But surprise: He tried to find a teacher who could school him, but he came up short. No lessons, no mentors, with his elementary education coming from trying to pick up pointers listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis records.
So, Maret set out to teach himself which explains why he has developed such a unique, innovative sound that is the freshest and most compelling harmonica sound today, putting him into the top tier of players, from pop star Stevie Wonder to jazz master Toots Thielesman who retired from performing in 2014 at the age of 91. (Significantly Thielesman dueted with Maret on the Ivan Lins song “O Amor E O Meu Pais” on the latter’s 2012 eponymous debut album—in essence with Toots passing the harmonica baton onto the younger in the process.)
“I wanted to work hard in my musical life, to go beyond the instrument to find my own voice, to go beyond whatever the music is asking for,” says the 30-year-old harmonica ace, basking in the glow of his superb second solo album, Wanted, that he will be celebrating on April 7 at Subrosa. “You can master the technical aspect of the instrument, which then allows you an open door to explore.”
With a harmonica adventure beckoning, Maret attended Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique de Genève, then made the bold move to move to New York to pursue jazz studies at the New School University. His biggest lesson at first was to learn how to play rhythmically on his harmonica. “It’s an instrument that was made in Germany to play melodies,” he says. “Culturally in Europe, rhythm wasn’t important or taken seriously. When I moved to New York at such an early age, the importance of rhythm was one of the first things I realized. I could hear it in the way Sonny Rollins played his saxophone and how Elvin Jones used his drumming so powerfully. So I had to spend a lot of time to master the rhythmic aspect of jazz. I started playing simple phrases and then got into the more complex rhythms. It’s human nature to not try to explore something new, but I wanted to master the harmonica as a jazz instrument.”
Early on, Maret played with saxophone ace (and today MacArthur Grant fellow) Steve Coleman. “He pushed me, he challenged me,” Maret says. “I didn’t know enough to play his [complex] music, so I was forced to come up with a language to fit with his music. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Maret’s first regular gig was with the great vocalist Jimmy Scott. He met him at a session and the diminutive singer said to keep in touch. “A year or two later, I called him to say hello and he said that he was coming to New York to play a week at the Iridium,” Maret says. “So I went to see him on the second night at the late show. And Jimmy said, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ So he wanted me to just jump in and see how I could handle the pressure. After, he said, ‘You’ve got the gig.’ He was looking for something unique and he wanted to help a young person learn the craft. I was young, green and he gave me a chance. He saw the potential.”
Maret ended up touring widely with Scott and recording four albums from 1998 to 2001. They remained close—close enough that Maret asked him to sing a song he wrote for him on Wanted. He agreed and Maret played wafts of harmonica grace above his high contralto emotive vocals on the balladic end song, “26th of May”—which turned out to be the singer’s final recording (he passed away in 2014).
On his way up, Maret’s unique harmonica sounds caught the attention of several mega jazz stars, including icons such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock. “I think I learned the most playing with Herbie,” Maret says. “I always admired his music since I was a kid. I learned so much about phrasing and improvising. There’s so much depth in his notes. It’s the same with Wayne. It was like going to school. Plus, going on the road for a month, I got the chance to hang out with musicians who taught me how to learn about life on the road as an artist.”
Soon, Maret was enlisted by an array of artists, from Canadian pop/roots player Bruce Cockburn to adventurous pianist Jacky Terrasson to funk fusion bassist Marcus Miller to guitar god Pat Metheny to vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who he recorded with on two of her albums in 2003 and 2006. He also struck up a collaborative friendship with drummer/bandleader Terri Lyne Carrington, who serves as co-producer of Wanted, which features an all-star cast of musicians.
There’s a remarkable, harmony-rich version of the Miles classic “Blue in Green” played as a duo with Chris Potter on baritone clarinet, a funky take on Wayne’s “Footprints” with guitarist Marvin Sewell digging into the groove, a killer romp through the Maret original “Groove” with vocalist Luciana Souza singing wordless vocals that gorgeously harmonize with the harmonica, and a hushed duo on “Heaven’s,” a tune Maret wrote with top-tier jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves. “I had written the tune some two years ago but it was an instrumental,” Maret says. “So I talked to Terri Lyne telling her that I heard a voice in there. She contacted Dianne who emailed me the next day and said she would write the lyrics. I loved it. And it all happened very quickly.”
Maret enjoyed collaborating with Carrington, especially in the way that she wanted to conduct the recording sessions. “It was the opposite of my first album,” Maret says. “That was highly produced. For this one, there were no rehearsals. We just went in and pulled the songs off. I’d explain briefly about what I was hearing, and then said, let’s see where we go. Wanted is an album about the first moment of creativity. It was completely fresh and full of trust.”
Wanted covers a lot of bases, from fusion-oriented tunes to r&b to straight up jazz, all given an alluring voice with Maret’s singular harmonica voice. He’s still ready for more explorations. “The music on Wanted is part of a puzzle,” he says. “Each record I make is a piece of a puzzle that will be completed as I continue to find new songs on my harmonica.” From modest beginnings on the instrument, Maret today stands tall, taking the harmonica into a world that it’s never been before.