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Zorn’s Prickly Harmony

Charlie Hunter

It’s always exciting to see some fresh new artist emerge on the scene fully formed with so much raw talent, confidence and charisma that he or she immediately gets gobbled up by every savvy bandleader looking to add some spark to the bandstand. Harmonica sensation Grégoire Maret is one such cat. Playing the chromatic harmonica with the chops of Toots Thielemans and the soul-searing expression of Stevie Wonder, Maret has lit up any number of bandstands in the past few years. A soft-spoken, unassuming young man of 30, he conveys a kind of neo-bohemian presence on stage, looking like a refugee from the jam-band scene with his jeans, hooded sweatshirt and hank of thick black hair tied into a long ponytail. But when he digs into a solo, whether it’s on an uptempo bebop romp, an earthy blues shuffle or some slamming hip-hop flavored funk, he instantly elevates the proceedings with a perfect blend of passion and stunning virtuosity that has audience members shouting out encouragement from their seats. This happens particularly when Maret abandons the harmony and starts ascending adventurously in double-time fashion like an aerialist in free flight. And more often than not, it’s the band members on stage who are doing the loudest whooping and hollering at the harmonica ace’s outré excursions.

I’ve seen Maret do this time and time again with different bandleaders and in different venues — with Cassandra Wilson at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s cavernous Rose Theatre, with Jimmy Scott and also with Teri Lynne Carrington’s band up at the more intimate Stanley Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center, with Jeff “Tain” Watts at the Blue Note and also at the Village Vanguard, with Leon Parker’s band, Any Milne’s Dapp Theory and Steve Coleman’s band at the Jazz Gallery, with Ravi Coltrane at the Jazz Standard — and the reaction from the audience is always the same everywhere: one of sheer elation and exhilaration. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Maret’s magic. The latest to jump on the harmonica player’s bandwagon is Pat Metheny, who features the remarkable Swiss-born musician on his latest recording, The Way Up.

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