The harmonica is an intimate instrument, held softly in cupped hands as if the performer is telling secrets. Grégoire Maret is always pushing to expand, learn, and develop as a jazz harmonica player, and he speaks fluidly and sensitively through the instrument. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Maret move to New York City to pursue jazz studies at the New School. Over time, he has developed his own unique sound across a wide range musical genres, playing with the likes of Youssn’Dour, Me’ Shell Ndegeocello, Pat Metheny, Pete Seeger, Sting, and many more.
Maret is bringing his Gospel Project to The Jazz Gallery, which we have hosted before, and has also been featured on stages such as Montreux Jazz. Joining him will be Ondrej Pivec on organ and piano, Chelton Grey on bass, Nathaniel Townsley on drums, and Linwood Smith on vocals. Read below to check out Maret’s thoughts on his own his Gospel project, performing like a vocalist, and working with some of the great jazz masters alive today: We caught up with Maret via phone while he was running around town getting his visas and passport in order for an upcoming tour with Herbie Hancock.
TJG: You must be excited for this show. It’s a great lineup of musicians. I know you’ve performed with The Gospel Project here at The Jazz Gallery, with a slightly different personnel.
Grégoire Maret: Yes, what we did before was sort of a tribute to Stevie Wonder, our approach to the Stevie Wonder songbook, which is related to this project as well. We did that concert without a vocalist, and for this concert, we’re going to have vocalist Linwood Smith, who’s coming from church and he’s incredible, incredible, sensational, really. It’s going to amazing. We’ll probably play a few of the songs from last time that sounded so good, but other than that, they’re all originals that have been written for this particular group. I had the help of Stephanie Fisher to do all of the vocal arrangements and write lyrics, and Jean Baylor to do some vocal arrangements and help with lyrics. Cedric Hanriot has been producing this project and arranging a lot of the music, and I wrote everything originally. It was my take on trying to write songs rather than instrumental tunes. I wanted to write something completely for vocalist, and to think of the harmonica like a vocalist as well. We’ve traveled and recorded quite a bit already. The record isn’t finished, but we’ve gone to Europe and Asia, all over the place in the States, and it’s a thrill, getting people excited about the music.
TJG: Well, you’re playing music that feels good.
GM: Exactly. One of the goals is to make something that feels good, sounds great, is accessible, but at the same time is really sophisticated, not just feel-good music with nothing beneath the surface. I’ve been highly influenced by a lot of the people I’ve played with over the years, people like Pat Metheny, who are masters of that kind of stuff. Really pretty melodies, and when you check out what’s going on underneath, there’s so much, you know, it’s really complex. That’s what nurtures both the listener and the musician. It’s challenging to play, exciting, and at the same time, everybody can relate to it. That’s the music I love to play. When you listen to Herbie, his songs have relatively simple melodies, and then underneath, there’s all kinds of stuff going on. Of course, when you talk about Herbie, he can take the simplest form and make it the most beautiful, sophisticated thing. That’s always been the music that attracted me.
TJG: So when you talk about composing something that has both simplicity and sophistication, and you’re working with a singer like Linwood Smith, how do you approach that?
GM: I usually start by writing some chords, and see if I hear a melody. Or, I’ll start with a little melody, and see how I can reharmonize it. I’ll find three, four, five ways to reharmonize a melody, see which one suits the melody best. That’s the starting point, around the melody, and to have good counterpoint between the bass and the melody, always. That’s huge. You basically have two melodies, the bassline and the main melody. Then you fill in the dots, the chords and that kind of stuff, after that. That’s the way I think about a lot of music. I’m always trying to come up with a relatively simple melody that I’ll sing while I’m writing at the piano. I’ll sing the melody and start playing chords to accompany the melody, until I feel like I have something really strong. Sometimes, I have some chord changes I want to explore, and I’ll try to find a melody that suits that at the same time that it is really singable. That’s really the whole key of this project, to create melodies that can be sung easily.
TJG: You know, I just watched the new Quincy Jones documentary, and when he’s writing and recording music, he said something like “You have to leave 20% of space for God to walk through the room.” You know what I mean? How do you not over-write for this band?
GM: For me, what Quincy Jones said there is pretty true, and I always try to have that in the music, something that’s open to the moment, open to whatever is going to happen. I try to keep things relatively simple. I want to be sure that we can perform these songs without needing to rehearse a million times. Of course, I have great musicians, and they can play challenging things, amazing, difficult music, but my goal was to try not to go in the direction of complexity as much as possible. A lot people do demos when they create music, and in performance they want to re-create the demo, thinking that’s the only thing the band can do. Once they do the demo, if they want to do a recording, it has to be like the demo. Sometimes, being closer to the demo is the best thing that can be done. For me, with my music, I try to stay away from that. I don’t make demos, so nobody has heard anything, nobody knows it’s “supposed to sound like” when we rehearse, and I want to see what’s created, what evolves, what’s going to happen. That’s my approach.
TJG: Your rhythm section for this gig is Ondrej Pivec on organ, Chelton Grey on bass, and Nathaniel Townsley on drums. That’s a funky trio.
GM: They’ve been playing together for years. Usually it’s Shedrick Mitchell on organ and DJ Ginyard on bass, but they both couldn’t do it, so I called Ondrej because he’s always played when Shedrick couldn’t, and naturally, I called Chelton, because Chelton and Ondrej have such a strong musical relationship. I know it’s going to be strong no matter what, it’s going to be incredible.
TJG: You mentioned that you moved from singing to harmonica at seventeen, after your voice changed. Do you still feel like a vocalist at heart?
GM: Yes, more and more so. There was a moment in my life where I was really focusing on trying to master the instrument and not really thinking about the vocal, lyrical element of the instrument. Now I’m more and more thinking about that. I always, when I play, think like a singer, even when it’s really complex, if I’m playing kind of crazy stuff on the instrument. It may sound crazy, but it’s stuff that I hear, that I’ve worked on as a vocalist, and I’m very much still thinking like a vocalist.
TJG: What does that mean, for you?
GM: That basically means that I can sing what I play. I really hear it. I want to make an emotional statement. It’s not just notes, you know what I’m saying? I try to really hear what I’m playing. It doesn’t mean it has to be simple, I’m just saying that I’m really hearing it. That’s why it has a certain emotional feel. That’s a big thing for me.
TJG: You’ve made plenty of albums as a leader, and you’re also well known as a collaborator with many types of musicians. How do you go about choosing what to focus on? Do you pick a direction and start running? Do you have a long-term plan?
GM: I have a long and a short plan, that’s the way I look at it. In the short term, I’m thinking about stuff in terms of records, in terms of things I want to explore, get out there, spread around. I have a long plan as well, regarding aspects of the music that I really want to push forward. I have both, really. When I was a young musician, I had long term goals and dreams. How do you get there, step by step, day by day, week by week, month by month? I think about taking steps where I can reach my goals in the long term. We just talked about the vocal side of my playing, the ability to kind of sing while playing the harmonica. That’s one of the things I want to develop more, to really create all the time, in the short and long term. As soon as I play one note, I want to get that same feeling you get when someone is singing. That’s what I’d like to accomplish, and I’m working toward that goal. When you hear Miles Davis come in with one note, and it’s like “Oh my goodness,” I won’t deny it, I want to have that kind of that with one note too, so strong, so powerful, emotionally and spiritually.
TJG: Do you feel like that’s something you can work on even if you’re on tour with someone else? You’re just about to go on tour with Herbie, for example.
TJG: Absolutely. It’s good to try to develop that while playing with Herbie, because he has that ability, obviously. You can really hear him doing that every night with the piano. It’s like going to school all the time, playing with Herbie. And when you do a tour like this, you get to try again, and again, and again, and again. It’s not like you just have one night, one concert, a great experience, that’s it. With this, you get to try again. Sometimes, the thing you’re trying doesn’t sound great, and sometimes it sounds better. Playing with Herbie in the past, my feeling has been that however great I thought I was doing, once he was playing, I felt annihilated. But it was great, I learned a lot. I’m looking at it in a really positive way.
TJG: Do you ever talk to Herbie about this? Will you say “Man, this is what I was going for, what did you think,” or anything like that?
GM: No. The more you go play with masters like Herbie, Wayne, the less you talk about music with them. We’ll rarely talk about music on the road, never really. Maybe classical music, or different stuff they’ve heard that has inspired them, but they’re not going to talk about your playing, like “You should do this” or anything. They want to stay away from that. I guess, they like the mystery of the moment. They want to explore without having to talk too much about it. They want to keep its full potential. As soon as you go into “We should work on this, and it should be like this or that,” you’ve already cut off fifty percent of the creativity that is possible in the moment. They play with musicians that they feel are experienced enough to really understand that. Now, I can’t speak for them and say “It’s like this,” but that’s what I feel. Of course, if someone is messing up a theme, we’ll work on that, make sure it sounds great. But when it comes to improvising or something like that, they really won’t say a word.
TJG: Wow. Not even to celebrate?
GM: Of course, sometimes they’ll say “Yeah! What you just did was great!” But not really that often, it’s definitely not going to be something you hear every night. But I’m not there to get accolades, I’m just there to learn and to play great music. I understand the long road I have ahead, in terms of learning, and I embrace it. I’m glad when Herbie or someone of that caliber gives me a criticism, “Maybe you should explore this.” That’s something I’m happy to hear from them.
TJG: In your last interview with The Jazz Gallery, you mentioned that after your daughter was born, you had less time to compose as much, but even so, you still have three or four records in the pipeline. What’s coming up?
GM: I’m still working on this gospel project. The Stevie Wonder music is basically ready to go–not recorded, but ready to be recorded. The gospel recording is basically done, I have to do a few more things and the record is finished. I also just finished a trio record with French pianist Romain Collin and Bill Frisell. That CD is mixed and will be released next year. Last week, I finished a record with harpist Edmar Castaneda, and we had Béla Fleck as a guest. That will be released next year as well, we’re mixing next week, and vocalist Andrea Tierra, Edmar’s wife, sang as well, which sounded great. There’s a lot going on, and it’s all different. That’s what I love. It makes life exciting.
Grégoire Maret’s Gospel Project plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, October 12, 2018. The group features Mr. Maret on harmonica, Ondrej Pivec on organ & piano, Chelton Grey on bass, Nathaniel Townsley on drums, and Linwood Smith on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.