This is part of a series of posts that collects the wisdom that comes to me from seeing great musicians play live. I’m looking here for the threads of connective tissue between the beauty of what I heard and experienced with how I approach my work and my own musical art. I hope you find inspiration here to live your work like an artist today.
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.
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