Gregoire Maret: Finding His Own Way

Gigi Brooks interviews harmonicist about his life in music

Grammy Award-winning Gregoire Maret has found a way to create a unique voice with the rarely utilized instrument in the jazz world—the harmonica. His sound is fresh, soulful and innovative, which has propelled the sound of the harmonica to a whole new plateau.

For over a decade, Maret has been on the scene as a sideman to some of jazz’s greatest artists such as Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, George Benson, Raul Midon, Marcus Miller, Kurt Elling, Robert Glasper and many others.

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Gregoire Maret
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Gregoire Maret

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This month, I sat down with Maret to discuss his new self-titled debut, with special guests: Mark Kibble from Take 6, Cassandra Wilson, Mino Cinelu, Marcus Miller and more. We also had a wonderful, reflective time discussing his life in music and his most exhilarating and mantle-passing experience on his duet with the legendary Toots Thielemans on Lins’ “O Amor E O Meu Pais.”

Gigi Brooks: Let’s talk about your early beginnings. You come from a diverse family background where your mother is African-American and your father is Swiss. How did they influence your interest in jazz?

Gregoire Maret: My father has always been passionate about music and jazz in particular, before I was born; long before he met my mother. Once they met, they shared the love of music. He is a musician as well, but he’s not professional, he plays banjo and he had many bands he was performing with at the time when I was growing up…he is still performing now. So I was basically born listening and hearing music and not only records, but live music, because my father was playing and performing with really great musicians. I guess it got me into music really early on and it was just really natural for me to start playing music and becoming a musician.

I also read that your inspiration for the harmonica as an instrument came from a small harmonica on a school mate’s key chain. How did that come about?

There are two stories which are true and they happened around the same time that kinda influenced me to make that step. One is that I went on a school trip when I was in high school and somebody gave me one of those small keychain harmonicas and during that school trip it kinda got me interested in the instrument basically that’s what it was; it’s not like “o.k. I’m just going to play”. It was like “wow” I guess we can play even on a small instrument like this. Just around the same time I went to see a blues concert, Luther Allison and a harmonica player came onstage at the very end and he completely blew my mind away! Whatever he was able to play was like completely amazing. From that point on I decided that’s really what I want to do, .I want to learn how to play this instrument. And then once I started to get into it and checking out records…cause my father’s recordings because he’s got quite a few. I started to hear and notice that all of those songs and recordings that I’ve listened to with my father had all of this harmonica on it, because he loves blues. So I started choosing the ones I could kinda’ copy and it became really a passion for me as well. I was just completely hooked. That’s it.

Incredible, I mean of all of the instruments in the world this on is rare and beautiful and I’m so happy that you chose it. We need someone to love this instrument and explore its sound.

Yeah, me too! I feel really connected to this instrument, which is why I feel that I’ve had a journey as interesting as mine is because I feel it is real close to my personality; it really is me, this instrument. I just found the right instrument for me to play.

I’m glad you did! Your formal background is that you studied at the prestigious Conservatoire Superieur de Musique in Geneve. How did that prepare you for what you are doing now?

It was basically classical music. I studied basically harmony counterpoints and classical music, but I could never play anything; it was just mostly theoretical. Once I started to want to perform and learn more about my instrument, I basically came here to New York and started at the New School where they accepted me and they got me with different teachers that would coach me and tell me what I could practice and what I should try to work on with this instrument.

Now tell me what was it about your style at the time that even back then musicians such as Jacky Terrasson and Meshell Ndegeocello and other great musicians sought after you, which caused you to be in such high demand? What were you doing?

Well, maybe for people it looked like it happened really suddenly and very quickly, but for me to be perfectly honest I feel it happened very gradually and over an extended period of time; not necessarily over 20 years, but over a few years. I first came and studied at the New School and I didn’t perform at all for the first year. Then I started doing little gigs here and there with different people like some of my school mates or some teachers at the school would invite me to come and sit in with their bands and then from that point on I started playing with people, who were just touring and it got me exposed to people that were more in the touring circle.

After that, I started working with…well the first person that got me touring quite extensively was ‘Little’ Jimmy Scott. Just around that same time Jacky Terrasson asked me to be a part of his next record on Blue Note and I did that and then he invited me tour with him for about a year. After that I started performing with Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane and Charlie Hunter. I got an invitation right after that with Cassandra Wilson to perform with her and record with her as well. That has been going on for quite a while now. It has been my longest musical collaboration.

About ten years, right?

Yes, about ten years.

Tell us about the years you spent with Cassandra Wilson and Pat Metheny, for which you earned a Grammy with him in 2005; and then of course your work with Herbie Hancock and also Marcus Miller. What did you learn from those experiences with those people to become the great bandleader that you are today?

Well, each of them have their own world that they have created like a universe; their music is successful for a lot of reasons and they have this ability to…every time they play a note to create a world; and that was a huge influence and really a huge lesson for me. It’s quite incredible to be next to those people and really hear how they will get into opening doors that I just never knew. All of them have that gift for sure and they obviously write really well. They can arrange amazingly and they can perform like nobody else.

So, then it became this thing where I would have to practice so much to try to really get better everyday, because with Herbie, I always had this impression that when I was performing with him; the best I would do was play the most amazing stuff I could think of and feel in the moment and hope to go to the highest sphere possible. Then he would just play a couple of notes and the couple of notes that he was playing to me was so much more profound than anything I played before right away, it was like ‘Let me teach you’… you know? ‘Here it is!’ So I was like…”Wow! O.k. tomorrow I’ll try to do better.” It wasn’t anything negative, but really positive. An invitation to grow, you know? That’s basically what it was. It was really beautiful.

I really felt that with almost everybody that I did perform with, but more so with somebody like Herbie and maybe Pat Metheny and Cassandra Wilson too. She gave me a lot of room to try things and to find different sounds; and she kind of let me find my way in a sense.

And create your own sound.

Exactly! She would come with those songs that are so beautiful and she really trusted me to come and help to make it hopefully more beautiful in a sense. She was very nice in that sense. She gave me a lot of trust, like she wasn’t worried about telling me when to play or how to play…never. She was completely open and she saw that I was really sensitive to the music and I was really into the music. My goal is to serve the music and to be a team player and here for her to help make the music as good and beautiful as it possibly can be; so she really sensed that and I think and she completely trusted me and it’s always been like that. It was also another type of growth for me with her, because I had to find the exact thing to play that would really compliment whatever she sang or what she was delivering.

Those things were really quite profound for me you know? I think that’s why I stayed so long and that it rings really true…there’s no formula. It’s that we are in the moment and we’re playing something that it just completely honest.

I know exactly what you are talking about and I think the work is absolutely amazing. I have been listening to your work for many years, because you have been with her for so long. I was looking at your accomplishments and one thing I find incredible is that Suzuki, who is your sponsor, asked for your assistance in creating your own signature Chromatic Harmonica series, the G48 and G48W. Now there are several different versions of the harmonica such as Diatonic, Tremolo, Bass and Orchestral.

Exactly.

Did you choose the Chromatic with 48 reeds, because of the rich, mellow, darker sound you get from it? Or what was it about using the G48? And tell me what the difference is between the 48 and 48W.

Well, I started working with Suzuki, they came one night to my concert…I knew about them for quite a while, but I used to play different harmonicas before and when I was playing with Pat Metheny and I went to Japan, I met with them and they gave me a lot of instruments to try; I was like “o.k. this is good,” but I felt like certain things could be improved. They were very eager to create better instruments, they were all about my advice to find better way to create better instruments and I was very impressed by that.

An example I can give is that while I was on tour with Pat Metheny for about three weeks in Japan, I met with them a few times, but in between we were playing a lot…we were doing a lot of concerts and so I would perform with the harmonica and then I would give them some kind of like criticism. I would tell them, “o.k. this harmonica responds really well here, but this is not good and maybe you can improve on this or that”…

In about a day or two later, I would get a knock on my door and I would have a new harmonica delivered to me with those changes made on the harmonica; so it would be a new harmonica…improved; so every few days I had another harmonica that was improved and I thought “man, this is incredible!” I said, “You know what I think we should work together, cause I do believe you can make the best instruments that have ever been made and mass produced.”

We started working together and then finally after about a year or two they said they wanted to a signature model for you and I said, “O.k. lets work on it” we worked four years on that together. They would send me prototypes and I would play them live and in the studio, because I wanted to see how they would respond in real situations, not just practicing. I would them give them my feedback and then they would make some changes and try to improve it. We worked like that for four years. Then I went on tour with Herbie Hancock and they gave me the final prototypes and I knew from the first instant playing in rehearsal that that was it. I thought, now I’m ready. I played those instruments for the whole tour and it was like, o.k. they are absolutely amazing. To me they are the best instruments out there in terms of chromatic harmonicas. The big honor is that they have my name on it.

Absolutely!

The difference between the two instruments is one has a metal cover, so it is a bit brighter sounding and more geared towards pop and R&B. The other has a wooden cover and is a bit darker sounding and it is more for beautiful ballads… for Cassandra Wilson, I play it mostly. Those instruments have a slight different kind of sound and tone for the material being played.

So the G48 is for pop and R&B and the other for more mellow sounds. I find this extremely interesting. Thank you for explaining this. On your brand new debut self-titled album, you’ve got several greats who made guest appearances on this supreme project such as Marcus Miller, Raul Midon, Cassandra Wilson, people you’ve worked with for years. Mark Kibble from Take 6, Alvin Chea, Jeff “Tain” Watts and also the legendary Toots Thielemans, which excites me like you would not believe!

[Laughs] It’s very exciting! Mostly exciting for me, you know! When I decided to do this record I was like… o.k. let me look back at what I did and people I have performed with that I would love and would make sense to be a part of this record. I wrote or arranged a song for each of them particularly “The Man I Love” was arranged for Cassandra Wilson. I couldn’t hear anybody else but her really singing that song with that particular arrangement. It was the same thing for Mark Kibble and Alvin Chea of Take 6, I really wrote that song with Take 6 in mind. I told them, I wrote this song for you guys, do you think you can do something? Would you like to be a part of this? And they said yes. When he came with the final version of vocal arrangements on it I thought it was better than anything that I could have imagined, but that was in the spirit of what I really wanted.

It’s the same thing with Raul Midon and the same thing with Toots, I was like o.k. this is one of the obviously, the most important musicians on the harmonica and is one of the most significant musicians all around in terms of what he did. He performed with Quincy Jones and so many different kinds of music and styles and different musicians and people and it’s always so beautiful; and I thought it would be such an honor to have him be a part of this first record, so I asked him and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it”. So I said to myself let me make it really extra special. I know he has all of this beauty inside of him, so let me find a song that is real lyrical, that would really get him to play all of this beautiful stuff. I thought he has a real love for the Brazilian music, in particular, Ivan Lins; so I thought that particular song by Ivan Lins would sound really good with him and I love it myself and I thought the two of us would be really good on that. I then asked a friend of mine to arrange for a full orchestra…strings and orchestra for the occasion to make it really just as beautiful and as powerful as I could.

And did it ever!

Yes. I am really pleased with everything. Toots’ performance, the arrangements, everything; I think it sounds really, really nice!

My goodness yes! I thought when I first got your CD, I thought to myself it would sure be great if Toots was on this and of course I flip it over and there he was! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Oh, yeah.

I just thought to myself, wow! How many jazz harmonicists are there at all?

Well, there’s not that many. The interesting thing is that a lot of people that do play the harmonica…Toots and Stevie Wonder are the majors figure of the harmonica and they have such a defined and personal sound and style that everybody who came after them were very influenced by either one of them. For me, I am influenced by both of them, but I received an amazing piece of advice from Toots early on and he really helped me to step out of that and he said “If you really like what I play and how I play, you should use it as an example to try to grow out of it and try to find you own way”. It’s what I have been trying to do ever since and I was barely seventeen when that happened. It put that idea in my mind and it wasn’t really just that oh, I’ve got to find my own way and my own style, but it also happened really naturally…it was in the back of my mind somewhere. The fact that I performed and learned from people like Steve Coleman and Ravi Coltrane really helped me go deeper in to a personal quest you know? I didn’t really play that style of music or that kind of jazz. It was a chance for me to get into new ground to try to find something new on the instrument, because I have to really address that music that has never been performed before on the harmonica.

I think that is tremendous. Your approach to your music is fresh, it’s original and I was trying to figure out how you were able to create the difference between your predecessors , Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder; how you were able to do that and you just explained it to me that actually you listened to them, but moved away from that and created your own sound which is fresh and new and I love it!

Yes. It was with the help of experiences that I had on the bandstand with people who don’t have anything to do with either Toots or Stevie, like Steve Coleman and Ravi Coltrane. They pushed me to playing all of this odd-meter stuff and this music that is based on intervals. It really pushed me forward and forced me to think differently in terms of the rhythm and all kinds of stuff. Also, their harmonic concepts and their melodic concepts are completely different, because it’s more based on intervals. Then it pushed me also harmonically and melodically to think differently, so it was pushing me towards another direction and it really helped me to find my own path, my own musical way of playing on the instrument that is a bit more personal.

What advice do you have to musicians out there who are working hard to get where you are in music?

If music is a passion and you just live and breathe music, there’s no choice, you’ve gotta’ do it and you’ve gotta’ remain true to yourself, because that’s what makes each person unique is to remain true to himself or herself musically. That’s what we’re looking for…I’m not trying to find another person who plays like somebody else; I want to hear what everybody has to say for themselves. I would encourage people to find their path…musical pathway. There are so many things that can be done and so many styles of music to explore and that’s amazing and exciting journey.

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