Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the harmonica the way Christopher Walken loves the cowbell. Unfortunately, I grew up in the ’80s, a.k.a. the synthmonica decade, so my fondness for the instrument has always been coupled with a tinge of sadness and a sort of defensive craving for more. You just don’t hear it that often — and in the ’90s, its mini-renaissance was sparked by the bandolier-sporting showoff John Popper, whose needlepoint soloing style left no room for the genuine warmth of, say, Toots Thielemans or Stevie Wonder.
All of which is to say that it gives me a particular thrill to hear young harmonica players challenging the boundaries of the instrument. To a certain degree, it’s broken out of the musical ghetto it occupied when Larry Adler started doing his groundbreaking work in the ’30s and ’40s, but the harmonica still boasts a lot of untapped potential — and it’s being explored by Grégoire Maret, who’s stepping out on his own with a self-titled debut album after making a name for himself as an extraordinary session player for the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Hunter, and Herbie Hancock.
Grégoire’s record incorporates strains of Thielemans — and countless other influences — while presenting a series of smoothly performed, smartly arranged covers and originals. I was excited to talk to the man behind the record, and he didn’t disappoint, proving just as thoughtful as his music.
I was excited to hear that you were releasing a solo album, because we don’t get to hear the harmonica take the spotlight very often. Why do you think it’s such an under-appreciated instrument?
Well, I think it’s an instrument that everyone has at home, but very few people know how to play. It has a reputation of being a toy, almost. Nothing really special. Certain people play it really well in blues or country music, but very, very rarely in jazz. People just aren’t aware of what you can do with the instrument. Stevie Wonder and Toots Thielemans opened people’s eyes a little, but there’s still a negative connotation that goes along with the instruments.
It’s hard to guess at specific reasons. I just think people look at it almost as a toy — that’s the reaction I get all the time, anyway. People hear me play and they say they had no idea you could do that kind of thing with the harmonica. I say yeah, it’s an instrument with as much range as any other. You can do just about anything with it — it has a beautiful voice and a rich, expressive range. And one of the good aspects of playing it is that there’s still so much to discover, you know what I mean? If you play piano, trumpet, or saxophone, you can still find new stuff to play, but it’s going to be much harder. Harmonica is still uncharted territory to an extent, and that’s exciting.
I want to talk about that uncharted territory. As a young harmonica player, did you feel a sense of freedom because of what we’re discussing, or was it more daunting to try and find a voice without a lot of established parameters?
I didn’t have any examples of people doing what I wanted to do. I mean, there was Toots, obviously. But when I started playing with Steve Coleman, there wasn’t anyone to guide me into the notes and phrases I needed to use. I had to practice, and find a way of playing that music. It was really difficult, but it was also really rewarding — once I hit on it, I felt like it was fresh and new.
What do you think drew you in that direction, as opposed to sticking with the blues? That’s where most harmonica players begin and end.
I started with blues harmonica, and then when I was in high school in Switzerland, I switched to the chromatic. From there, it was just a question of my musical tastes. I guess I’ve always been pretty open-minded, so when people showed me a guy like Steve Coleman, for example, I was just like “wow, this is incredible.” I wanted to see how I could fit the harmonica into that musical vocabulary. A lot of it also had to do with what kind of calls I’d get — for a couple of years I’d play with Ravi Coltrane, then Steve Coleman — the M-Base Collective guys — so I was really intensely studying that stuff. Then I got a call from Charlie Hunter, so I had to adapt to that — a totally different way of playing. Each different environment pushed me to grow. And I really love music, so for me, it was very exciting to have those opportunities to explore. It was also difficult — there were always moments where I’d have to make those choices, to figure out how and where to fit in. I had to trust my instincts.
In the electronic press kit for the album, you talk about hearing music in terms of color.
It’s true that when I think about music, it’s hard for me to talk about it in musical terms. It’s much easier for me to talk about it in visual terms. I mean, I’m not going to be the guy who leads a session by saying, “We’re going to play in yellow, green, and blue,” but very often when I write, I see that in my head. It’s very visual. That’s why I think there’s sort of a movie soundtrack quality to this music — I think it helps you travel to different places because there were those images in my head when I started off.
Not a lot of people write for the harmonica, so I wanted to talk about songwriting, and how that process works for you.
I generally write on piano. And I’m also really old school in that I always write on paper. I’ll sit on the piano and come up with a melody idea, or a couple of chords, and see where I can go with it. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes a couple of days, but I always try to write. Always. It’s a skill that grows. You can be gifted, but it’s also something that you can learn how to improve — and it’s also a really good way of expressing who you are. When you only take songs that have already been written, you’ll always be using other people’s material to get your ideas across. Which is fine, but at this stage in my career, it’s exciting to start from scratch; to express everything.
I like what you’re saying about honing your craft and not falling back on your natural gifts. I think that’s a valuable lesson for anyone engaged in creative pursuits.
A lot of people feel like if you’re gifted, there’s no work involved. It isn’t true. These are things you work at — you practice, you get better every day. It’s a lifelong quest. I’ll play differently in 20, 30, or 50 years than I do today. That’s a great thing; there’s always something new coming. I mean, look at Toots Thielemans — he plays completely differently now than he did when he was 30 years old. Both are great, but they’re different. You have to evolve, and that’s also why I think it’s important to write.
There’s always a tension between honing your craft and remaining connected to your muse, and I think that tension is more pronounced in jazz; it’s a discipline that requires you to balance a lot of technical knowledge with an ability to express yourself through improvisation. How do you find the right balance?
You know, there are times when I’ll sit down and think, “Okay, I want to use these chords, or do something with this triad” — an intellectual way of writing. Still being musical, but with that in mind. And sometimes it’s just sheer inspiration, and it feels great to see where that can take me. Sometimes it’s a mix of both. It’s hard to describe how to combine those approaches. But I think it’s important to increase your knowledge, and to work on your craft, so that when you get stuck, you have that to fall back on — to help you see where you can turn instead of just waiting for inspiration.
You’ve obviously done a fair amount of recording, but it’s a very different experience when you’re the one calling the shots. Do you have a sense of the lessons you took away from this album, and how you might apply them to future releases?
Everyone I’ve worked with has added something to my music. Once I worked with Herbie Hancock, or Cassandra Wilson, or anyone else — there’s no going back. That takes you to a new level. But I learned a lot from this for sure. I was very influenced by all the people I got to play with, and in a way, this album was a sort of tribute to them. I was able to invite a few of the people who have really mattered in my musical life, and it gave me an opportunity to look back while moving forward. And they all accepted the invitation, which was really beautiful.