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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

May 30, 2012

"Grégoire Maret is an exceptional young musician who is taking the harmonica to an exciting new place in jazz." - Pat Metheny

Great jazz musicians who play non-traditional instruments are few and far between. One can think of Edmar Castaneda and Brandee Younger (harp); Jean Luc Fillon (oboe); and Steve Turre (conch shell). Cello players like Erik Friedlander, Peggy Lee and Fred Lonberg-Holm have topped critics’ polls for years. While the tuba was one of the founding instruments of jazz, today it is usually found only in brass bands or in the hands of masters like Howard Johnson or Marcus Rojas. Accordion has come in and out of vogue, and is currently heard in Al DiMeola’s World Sinfonia by Fausto Beccalossi, as well as in the hands of players like Richard Galliano, Ted Reichman and Gary Versace. There are some truly wild instrumental choices out there as well.

The title of “King of the Jazz Harmonica” has long been held by Toots Thielemans, the nienty year old Belgian player who has written a jazz standard (“Bluesette”) and became an NEA Jazz Master. His heir apparent seems to be Grégoire Maret, a Swiss-born musician in his mid-thirties who has been a major contributor on the jazz scene for the past decade. Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson, and Marcus Miller are some of his most prominent employers, and he’s recorded with the likes of George Benson, Jimmy Scott, John Ellis, Jacky Terrasson, Sean Jones, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Mike Stern, and Charlie Hunter, to say nothing of Elton John, Sting, and Prince.

His debut CD as a solo performer was released two months ago, and shows new depth and warmth to his sound. Those not familiar with the wonderful texture and color the harmonica can provide to a band will be pleasantly surprised by Grégoire’s sound and approach to both standards and originals. Guest appearances by Cassandra Wilson and Toots himself add to the CD’s cachet.

I spoke with Grégoire the week after his quartet (including Federico Gonzalez Peña on piano; James Genus on bass; and Clarence Penn on drums) headlined the Jazz Standard in New York for a week. He spoke enthusiastically about the gigs, and his approach to the harmonica as a lead instrument. Click here to listen to our conversation, with musical selections including:

Grégoire Maret – "Children's Suite: Children's Song" from Grégoire Maret. Part of a multi-part suite co-written with Gonzalez  Peña, this track is intended to capture the gleeful aspects of being a child. Given that Maret was first inspired to play his instrument by a childhood schoolmate's keychain harmonica, this subject seems near and dear to his heart.

Grégoire Maret – “The Man I Love” from Grégoire Maret. Maret arranged "The Man I Love" with Cassandra Wilson in mind long before he ever worked with her, but never showed the arrangement to her during their near-decade collaboration until it came time to record her contribution to his debut album. It has since become a regular part of her repertoire.

Jimmy Scott – “I’ll Close My Eyes” from Over the Rainbow. Grégoire talked about recording with higher register instruments like “Little” Jimmy’s famous falsetto. The venerable singer had Maret join his rhythm section of bassist George Mraz and drummer Grady Tate on three tracks on this 2000 release, which included guitarist Joe Beck and vibes master Joe Locke on this version of the Buddy Kaye-Billy Reid tune.

Pat Metheny Group – Excerpt from “Part Two” from The Way Up. One of the latest versions of the Metheny Group recorded this long-form piece in 2005, sparked by Grégoire’s harmonica sounds. Band members included Richard Bona (vocals); Metheny (guitar); Maret (harmonica); Cuong Vu (trumpet); Lyle Mays (keyboards); Steve Rodby (bass instrument); and Antonio Sanchez (drums).

Cristina Morrison –  “Stand Still” from I Love. One of Grégoire’s most recent album appearances is this samba-esque tune on this talented singer’s debut CD  An accomplished actress, (she graduated from the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts), Ms. Morrison will have a release concert  for the CD, on June 12th at the Somethin’ Jazz Club in New York.