Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
The harmonica generally isn’t viewed as a supremely versatile instrument, steeped as it is in the blues tradition. But in the right hands, like those of Grégoire Maret, the harmonica can go just about anywhere. That’s what has allowed the 44-year-old musician to collaborate with a dizzying array of musicians, from funk-pop polymath Meshell Ndegeocello to Canadian folk legend Bruce Cockburn.
Maret’s varied resume also has had an effect on his own recordings as a leader, where the various tributaries he’s explored have granted him a vast pool of sounds to play with.
“There’s a wide spectrum of music that I’ve had the chance to explore,” Maret said, speaking from his home in New York. “I needed to be able to go in all those different directions for my next step.”
That impulse, in part, inspired Maret to title his new album Americana. Released by the ACT label, it is hardly a roots/folk recording, but the nine-song program was informed by the same blend of sounds—jazz, bluegrass, gospel and blues—that falls under the huge Americana umbrella. In fact, the definition that Maret and one of his collaborators, pianist Romain Collin, had for that term felt broad enough to describe themselves—two musicians not born in the States—and British rock group Dire Straits, whose song “Brothers In Arms,” stripped back to its plaintive melody, opens the album.
“To us, it embodies the notion that we had of the American Dream,” Collin said, speaking via Skype during a recent trip to Iceland. “When I was a kid, the idea of going to America to try and reach your dreams was so mesmerizing and extremely appealing.”
That said, Americana doesn’t carry the same fresh-off-the-plane feeling that an émigré might have on their first days in the U.S. Instead, there’s a lush calm to the album, with originals and covers like Bon Iver’s “Re: Stacks” and the pop standard “Wichita Lineman” that feel like surveying an expanse of farmland or the Grand Canyon. According to Maret, that feeling was crucial to his choice of material here.
“We felt there was such a disconnect right now all over the world,” Maret said. “We were trying to go against that with beautiful melodies and to present a closer expression to how I feel.”
The other element that was key to the sound and mood of Americana was the inclusion of guitarist Bill Frisell, who not only helped counterbalance the floating melodies of Maret and Collin but brought in two original compositions—“Rain, Rain” and “Small Town”—that ramble under the influence of country and blues. And, for Collin, it was a chance to finally work with one of his musical heroes.
“I was really excited, in maybe a selfish way, to explore some of his material and see how it worked for the ensemble,” Collin said of working with Frisell.
The chemistry of the three players is evident in the sound of Americana, as even their few solos feel tipped to retain focus on an ensemble vibe. It exudes such a collective warmth that it’s no surprise that everyone involved is already itching to get back into the studio with this lineup again.
“It’s one of those experiences where you go into the studio and you’re like, ‘Man, making music is easy!’” Maret said. “You’re just happy to be making music, and then you go home and feel like a better person for it.”
With much of the world on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maret predicts that it will be a while before he tours again.
“Having a record coming out during this pandemic is kind of surreal,” he said. “It’s a bit like walking into the unknown. The only thing that brings me peace is [knowing] that the music itself is a good instrument to help in these really difficult times. ...
“In terms of promotion, it’s still hard to say because people’s minds are somewhere else. So, we will need to let the dust settle and see where we stand. But at the same time, the two singles on Spotify and the video on YouTube we released recently are getting a lot of attention. It seems like the depth and the honesty of this music is what a lot of people need today. ... I hope it can bring some comfort to the listener in these unprecedented times.” DB
This story originally was published in the June 2020 issue of DownBeat.
Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
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