Grégoire Maret was born in 1975 in Geneva, Switzerland and began playing the harmonica at age 17. His childhood was filled with a musical influences from his Harlem born, African-American mother and his Swiss father, a jazz musician. He moved to New York city to pursue jazz studies at the New School University – and is now an accomplished award-winning harmonica player. He has recorded and performed with a number of jazz greats and toured around the world.
Gregoire joins us in this exclusive interview on his musical journey, the joy and importance of music, and his message to the world.
What was the vision behind founding of your music group? What new lineups and instruments have you experimented with since the early days?
It was to be able to showcase a lot of different aspect of my instrument in the most musical way. To compose some music especially for harmonica, piano, bass, drums and vocals — the conception of the music was with the harmonica sound in mind. Which is rare.
And also to get some of my good friends and people that I have admired for a long time, involved in this journey. From Jeff “Tain” Watts to Cassandra Wilson or Marcus Miller – without forgetting Federico Pena who co-wrote and produced part of the music of my first record, and Terri Lyne Carrington who produced my second record.
I have done some stuff in duo, trio, quartet, quintet or with full big band or orchestra. I have really tried a lot of different combinations and orchestrations.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
Each situation has its own set of challenges. If I’m a sideman, the challenges will be to be able to find the perfect way to play the music that is presented to me.
As a leader, it’s playing the best I can, but also bringing a group of people together that will help create magic in the studio or live. And try to make sure that the music and the arrangements are exciting for everyone involved, so we can always push each other to play better, and try to go beyond our limits in a very organic and natural way.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career? Who are some of your favourite musicians?
The biggest influences are people like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Jimmy Scott, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and many more.
But I like also people of my generation like Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Lionel Loueke, Shedrick Mitchell, Marcus Baylor, Gerald Clayton, Burniss Travis. Also Federico Pena who has influenced all the young keyboard players of my generation like Glasper. I have to name Gene Lake, Mino Cinelu, Clarence Penn, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Terry Line Carrington, James Genus, Rachel Z, Sean Rickman, Omar Hakim, Vadim Zilbershtein – all who have been very influential in their own right.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your music? How do you bring about fusion without confusion?
I try to blend musical genres in the most organic and honest and musical way I can to precisely avoid any misstep – but at the end of the day it’s a question of taste. I may like something that another person may not like as much or vice versa. The choices are endless and I just follow my heart.
How would you describe your musical journey and how your albums have evolved and changed over the years?
I feel very fortunate and blessed to have played with so many amazing musicians like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays and many more.
I guess I have come to be more mature now so I enjoy writing just as much as playing. That wasn’t the case earlier. All I wanted was to play. Now I love to write with certain people in mind or arrange new songs, then I love to play those compositions live and have the chance to rework the music as I see fit.
How was your overall experience in playing at Java Jazz and elsewhere overseas?
Playing at Java Jazz was a beautiful experience. I really love the enthusiasm of the audience. I was very touched when someone in the audience asked us to perform Manha Do Sol, which is one of my compositions. That meant that some people there already knew my music pretty well.
How does your composition process work: through a main songwriter, or through collaboration/jams between your band members? Do you compose on the road also, while travelling?
I try to write in many different ways. For the first record a lot of the music was about the collaboration between me and Federico Pena. For instance the Intros and Outro of both suites (Crepuscule and Children Song) were co-written. Or O Amor e O Meu Pais was co-arranged. Then some people like Krisztof Herdzin arranged the orchestra or Mark Kibble some vocals.
The next record is completely different. I wrote and arranged most of the music, with the exception of the strings arranged by Gil Goldstein, or some vocal arrangements by Mark Kibble, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dianne Reeves, Luciana Souza, Desmond Scaife Jr. and Kokayi.
The idea was to just bring some written music and see what would happen – I wanted no pre-production or anything like that. Just the raw talent of each person involved – no time to prepare, just play and see what we would create together, then work on post-prod to be able to get what I wanted. Usually I will write music on piano, travelling, or at home. I may want to try to write through jamming in the future but I haven’t done much of that yet.
Among all your tracks and albums, which are your favourite ones, and why?
I love the record I did for Krisztof Herdzin, and some records I did for Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny, Marcus Miller and Steve Coleman.
Otherwise I love a few songs of mine for different reasons. I love Prayer, Manha Do Sol, Crepuscule suite and Children suite for the different ambiences created which make the listener travel. I love O Amor E O Meu Pais because it was the perfect song to pay tribute to both Toots and Ivan Lins, who are two of my heroes.
I had written the Man I Love arrangement for Cassandra, so when she accepted the invitation it was a real treat! I like to play Lucilla’s Dream in different ways or tempos each evening. So there are a few that I still enjoy listening to or playing.
What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
Most of the time people are really moved by the music, but I can’t think of an unusual reaction!
What is your message to our audience? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
Try to learn about new music – and the Java Jazz Festival is a great play to be exposed to new music. Try not to listen only to the music on the radio or which is being promoted now. Listen to what was done before as well as now even if its’ a bit less known.
Music can really help, I believe. It can have a message and change someone’s perception of a reality. Or if it’s just good music, it can help someone have a beautiful moment in difficult times.
So no matter what, I do believe music is vital for everyone. Everyone should really support live music if they can.
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Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com