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Artist’s Choice: Grégoire Maret on the Harmonica and More

A jazz mouth-organ virtuoso recommends music by the artists who lit his way

Grégoire Maret
Grégoire Maret (photo: Neutrø)

When I started to put this list together, first I wanted to think about the harmonica players that had an impact on my playing, on my musical journey. The three harmonica players I mention—Sonny Boy Williamson, Toots Thielemans, and Stevie Wonder—are ones that everybody knows, and that’s for a reason: They are just amazing! They transcend the harmonica; it’s about the music they create. As for the other musicians, in high school I started checking out more modern jazz, like Miles Davis and Coltrane, and I just fell in love with the language, the thing that they were expressing through the music.

Sonny Boy Williamson
“Nine Below Zero”
The Chess Years (Chess, 1991)

Sonny Boy Williamson got me to become a harmonica player; he was the first harmonica player I heard as a teenager. My father had a tape, a blues compilation, and one of the songs on it was “Nine Below Zero.” I was completely blown away. I researched it and locked myself in my room and it took an entire week, but I learned everything he was playing, exactly the way he was playing. From that point on, I was completely hooked. I was playing harmonica 12 hours a day, and this was the track that did it.

Toots Thielemans
“Body and Soul”
Bill Evans/Toots Thielemans, Affinity (Warner Bros., 1979)

Toots never stopped evolving and learning and growing; his musical style always changed. If you listen to his early recordings, like Man Bites Harmonica!, he’s just playing bebop and it’s absolutely amazing. And then you compare it to later records, like “Body and Soul” with Bill Evans, where he’s completely created a style of his own. It’s coming from bebop but it’s not bebop anymore. It’s something else.

Toots Thielemans
“Começar de Novo”
The Brasil Project (Private Music, 1992)

The Brasil Project is later, and it’s completely different, a masterpiece. He’s getting so much expression from the instrument that you don’t usually hear from chromatic players, because he was taking stuff from everywhere, just trying to grow and evolve.

Stevie Wonder
“Isn’t She Lovely”
Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla, 1976)

When I discovered “Isn’t She Lovely,” it was suddenly a new world for me: finding that he was an incredible harmonica player! I learned a lot listening to him. He played in unusual keys; he has a certain style that we all know that actually lends itself really well to when you’re playing those keys. At the beginning, I was so blown away to hear him play so much amazing stuff in really difficult keys. So that was a big track for me.

Stevie Wonder
“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)”
Music of My Mind (Tamla, 1972)

I must have listened to this at least 10 times a day. I still, to this day, feel the same deep emotions. It’s such a beautiful song, the writing and the performing. And the production: the sound, the way, in the ’70s, they were recording instruments analog, which is just something we don’t quite hear anymore. It’s magical.

Wayne Shorter
“Fall”  
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968)

This was a really important song that I think I discovered in high school. Wayne Shorter’s solo is one of the most amazing ever. Wayne is somewhere in outer space, but it’s so beautiful. Very influential for me in terms of their playing, the way they listen to the music, the way they relate to each other.

John Coltrane
“Wise One”
Crescent (Impulse!, 1964)

This is another song that changed my life, because at the time we were all about trying to play as fast as we possibly could, and play the most amount of stuff, and this was the exact opposite. He was playing three notes and making it so powerful. He’s just telling the truth, and sometimes the truth is about saying less. It made me realize there were all different worlds out there.

Herbie Hancock
“Chameleon”
Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973)

“Chameleon” is the perfect combination of playing funk and more sophisticated jazz. I was blown away by what he was able to do, so I started learning his solo on the harmonica and I transcribed it, trying to understand what he was doing. This was really influential for me, not necessarily just about funk, but also the kind of language he was speaking with, playing on his funk beat.

Freddie Hubbard
“Birdlike”
Ready for Freddie (Blue Note, 1962)

I was on a summer break, and for an entire month, about eight hours a day, I studied this solo. At the end of the month, I could play the solo perfectly, with every little bit of intonation change, any expression that he had. It literally sounded like a trumpet on harmonica.

Kenny Garrett
“Caravan”
Freddie Hubbard, Topsy: The Standard Book (Alfa, 1989)

He [Garrett] was so free. He could do anything he wanted; there was no limit to what he was doing. I thought it was so refreshing to hear a younger musician being able to have such freedom and such a beautiful and distinctive sound, such a unique approach on the saxophone.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Artist’s Choice:

Grégoire Maret

Swiss-born harmonica player Grégoire Maret has performed with Prince, Sting, Elton John, Jimmy Scott, Dianne Reeves, Toots Thielemans, Raul Midón, Richard Bona, Terri Lyne Carrington, Tito Puente, Kurt Elling, Mike Stern, and others. His latest album as a co-leader is 2020’s Americana with Bill Frisell and Romain Collin.