Harmonica player Grégoire Maret’s self-titled leader debut couldn’t have featured any other instrument. It’s full of delicate arrangements that a more powerful ax would crush. Ironically, the harmonica is the album’s major problem. Specifically, Maret’s off-putting sound—thin, reedy and, with his predilection for the high register, shrill—seriously handicaps some otherwise fine music.
And the music is otherwise fine: postbop generously endowed with samba and soul. This material is played by a stellar cast of musicians, the core being bassist James Genus, keyboardist Frederico G. Peña and drummers Clarence Penn and Jeff “Tain” Watts. (Peña is the most consistently excellent, imbuing tunes like “Travels” and “Prayer” with a longing tenderness.) Guest stars shine, too. Cassandra Wilson is subtly profound on “The Man I Love,” and Marcus Miller’s funky fretless bass enlivens “Crepuscule Suite.”
The star, however, is Maret. His compositions are smart and ambitious (though “Crepuscule Suite” pretends to be more than it is), his arrangements thoughtful—especially his unlikely cover of Stevie Wonder’s “The Secret Life of Plants.” His improvisations also show great rhythmic imagination (“Manhã Du Sol”) and tight melodic thinking (“Children’s Song”). And on Pat Metheny’s gospel-ish ballad “Travels,” Maret even checks his worst stylistic impulses, with sublime results.
That, however, is a rare instance. His shortcomings are vividly displayed on “O Amor E O Meu Pais,” a duet with harmonica icon Toots Thielemans. The latter evinces a rounder, fuller-bodied tone, with a wider note range that’s concentrated in the middle register. Maret’s thin, metallic tones and piercing highs fare badly in contrast, marring what’s meant as a fond passing-the-torch moment.