Over the past decade, Swiss musician Gregoire Maret has redefined the role of the harmonica in modern jazz. After cutting his teeth as a sideman for some the biggest names in jazz, he's now taken center stage as a bandleader.
Here, Maret talks with NPR's Neal Conan about recording his self-titled debut album, building a following for the jazz harmonica and making the transition from sideman to headliner.
On how he got his start
"My father is a musician. Not professional, but he was in a circle of people who are playing a lot of music. So one of his friends actually gave me my first instrument. And I just started listening to his records and trying to pick up whatever I could and play and copy it."
On whether harmonica players get as much respect as other musicians
"Well, there's a little bit of a cliche. The idea that surrounds this instrument is a little bit strange, I guess, because very few people know how to play it. So when you think of harmonica, you always think of somebody who cannot play it.
"And I will not name anybody, but there's also a lot of pop musicians that have been, you know, mainstream who can really play this instrument. So, I mean, it sounds okay in their music, but it's not — it doesn't really do any justice to the instrument, really, as a full instrument. So once ... people realize, listening to me or other people who can play this instrument, that this full instrument has huge range, basically, and very exciting."
On his style as a bandleader
"I love the input of everybody in the band. I'm not here telling everybody what to do. I'll bring usually the music, and then we'll work on that music and make it grow. That's my take on being a leader, more than just telling everybody what to do on every level."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
When he arrived in New York to study jazz, Gregoire Maret says his fellow students sometimes laughed when he pulled out his harmonica. Not so much anymore. After a decade as a celebrated side man, Gregoire Maret has been recognized as the modern master of the jazz harmonica. He's played with Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson and Marcus Miller and with a few pop stars too: Elton John, Sting and Prince. Now Maret steps front and center as the headliner on a new CD. If you play harmonica, well, what does it take to get some respect? Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at NPR.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Gregoire Maret's self-titled debut album is available now. He's in the middle of a nationwide tour, but he's made a stop here in Studio 3A, along with pianist Federico Gonzalez Pena, who also produced the album. And Sean Rickman is with us on drums. Nice to have you all here.
GREGOIRE MARET: Yeah, hello. How are you?
CONAN: And why don't we start with a song?
MARET: Sure. We're going to start with a song named "Lucilla's Dream."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, LUCILLA'S DREAM)
CONAN: That was "Lucilla's Dream," Federico Gonzalez Pena on keyboards, Sean Rickman on drums and our leader here, Gregoire Maret, on jazz harmonica. And I have to ask you - you grew up in Switzerland - where did you learn to play jazz harmonica?
MARET: In Switzerland.
MARET: In Geneva. But the other - the person that's been probably the biggest influence for me on the instrument is from also Europe, from Belgium. Toots Thielemans, of course.
CONAN: Yes. He's your predecessor in a way.
MARET: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: And appears on your record.
MARET: He does. And he just came here, I mean, in New York. He did a special two-night concert at the Lincoln Center with Herbie Hancock as special guest and many other guests, and it was beautiful. I went to listen to him. It was absolutely beautiful. Yeah, he's a guest person on the record.
CONAN: And sort of passing the torch, in some respect?
MARET: Yeah. I mean, it's a big and amazing honor, of course.
CONAN: And I wanted ask, though, I mean, I read that you saw somebody play harmonica when you were, what, a teenager and got blown away. And where'd you find your first one?
MARET: My father is a musician. Not professional, but he was in a circle of people who are playing a lot of music. So he - one of his friends actually gave me my first instrument. And I just started to listening to his records and try to pick up whatever I could and play and copy it.
CONAN: So you taught yourself?
MARET: Totally, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah. And you're playing, people will notice, more chromatic instruments, more associated with Stevie Wonder, perhaps...
MARET: Yeah. Exactly.
CONAN: ...rather than the blues harp, a Junior Wells kind of thing.
MARET: Totally. Yes, yes.
CONAN: Yeah. No Marine Band for you?
MARET: No. I mean, I used to play blues harmonica, but I kind of changed when I was in high school.
CONAN: And did you find that the instrument did not get the same respect as - over the trumpet or the saxophone?
MARET: Well, there's a little bit of a cliche. The idea behind that surrounds this instrument is a little bit strange, I guess, because very few people know how to play it. So when you think of harmonica, you always think of somebody who cannot play it.
MARET: And I will not name anybody, but there's also a lot of pop musicians that have been, you know, mainstream who can really play this instrument. So, I mean, it sounds OK in their music but it's not - it doesn't really do any justice to the instrument, really, as a full instrument. So once they realize, people realize, listening to me or other people who can play this instrument, that this full instrument has huge range, basically, and very exciting.
CONAN: I've heard - read you described it as one of the instruments perhaps closest to the human voice.
MARET: It's very close to the human voice, sure, yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Well, we'll get some harmonica players to call in and see if you - what it takes to get some respect for such a great instrument. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Bill is on the line with us from San Antonio.
CONAN: Bill, are you there?
BILL: Yes, I am. Hey. How are you doing?
CONAN: Go ahead, Bill. You're on the air.
BILL: Yeah. Look, you know, I guess, the main question was, how do you get respect as a harp player? And I think your guest just got it right, nailed it right on the head - is actually sit down and practice.
MARET: Yeah, exactly. I mean - just being serious about this instrument, dedicated to playing it the right way.
CONAN: So don't live down to expectations is what you're saying, Bill?
BILL: Well, the biggest problem is, you know, you can pick up a diatonic harmonica, which is what I play. And if you're playing with people that are playing, you know, there or four-chords songs, you can stay in the key and you won't sound too bad. And a lot of people find that that's their - that becomes their definition of success and don't really stretch it to where it needs to go and find out what notes really fit with a given melody or how to back up, have, you know, take the place of a keyboard player and effectively back up a group, you know?
And it's hard because you don't have as many choices on a diatonic harp as you do on a chromatic. But when you got somebody like Howard Levy who can play anything a sax player on a diatonic harp. So there's - you just need to take the time to learn what the instrument can do.
CONAN: I guess, like anything else, Bill.
BILL: Pretty much, yeah.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
BILL: Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: I also wanted to ask you, Gregoire Maret. You've been watching leaders for many years as a sideman. You're now...
CONAN: ...the leader yourself. Does this unleash your inner Stalin? Are you telling what people to do now?
MARET: No, no. I like to consider it more of - I love the input of everybody in the band. I'm not here telling everybody what to do. I'll bring usually the music and then we'll work on that music and make it grow. That's my take on being a leader, more than just telling everybody what to do on every level.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in, one more. This is Jim, and Jim's with us from Tucson.
JIM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, Jim.
JIM: When I was about 10 and in the Cub Scouts, my auntie gave me a harmonica, and I taught myself to play "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" on it, and my first debut was with the other Cub Scouts and they all laughed like (unintelligible). And at that time, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the harmonica better. But I feel a little ill at ease here because the people you've spoken with, they're very professional people. And I just play for my own amusement, and I almost always carry a harmonica. I don't have one with me right now. But mostly, it's a Marine Band because they're cheap and they're good.
CONAN: Those diatonic we were talking about before.
MARET: Yeah, exactly. No, those are beautiful instrument and I'm glad you're playing this instrument. For me, it's just a matter of practicing. I know there's a few methods also that exist that could help, you know? But just pick up the melodies you love and try to play them.
JIM: I listened to what you played on the air here just before you came on to speak, and I was really impressed. And I - when I think of playing the harmonica, when I hear music, I automatically think of - that I'm playing it on the harmonica so that I can, you know, try and blow it, the right times and so forth. But I had never heard jazz harmonica played like that and, you know, that kind of gets me going to maybe I can play like that.
MARET: Yeah, I hope. Yeah, that'd be great.
CONAN: Well, go get the album, "Gregoire Maret" is its name, the name of the artist as well and then copy the notes.
MARET: Yes, indeed.
JIM: Oh, I'm not about copying.
CONAN: None of us are. Jim...
JIM: The only thing about the harmonica is that you can't sing and play at the same time.
MARET: You can, but you're going to have some really strange sounds.
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.
JIM: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Gregoire Maret, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we wanted to get a chance to hear another tune.
MARET: OK. This is "Manha Du Sol"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANHU DU SOL")
CONAN: Gregoire Maret's self-titled debut album is available now. He is with us here at Studio 3A with pianist Federico Gonzalez Pena, who also produced the album, and drummer Sean Rickman. Our thanks as well to our technicians who set this up, Cal Southworth and Melissa Marquis. Tomorrow, what Ohio and other states are doing to keep what the repeat offenders out of prison. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.