Archive for March, 2013

In performance: Leonard Cohen

leonard cohen

Leonard Cohen

“Best Easter ever.”

That was the roar that came from the balcony Saturday night at the Louisville Palace as Leonard Cohen wound down an elegant yet almost mercurial version of So Long, Marianne.

At that point, Easter Day was still an hour or so away. But given the strong spiritual components that drove some of Cohen’s finest songs, such an audience boast seemed to hold water. Of course, the often Zen-like reserve and politeness that surrounded the veteran songsmith’s performance played their parts, too.

Throughout this extraordinary 3½-hour program, Cohen wore one hat (a stylish fedora, an accoutrement also adopted by most of his band members and stagehands) but played many roles. Depending on which song from his 45-year recording career was dialed up, Cohen portrayed elder romantic, poet philosopher, enlightened mystic, jazz hipster, socio-political correspondent and, yes, even dirty old man. At age 78, he has won the right to inhabit all of those roles.

Sonically, though, the performance was a feast. Cohen’s eight-member band served as an orchestra of sorts, coloring each song with what can best be described as a lush hush. Veteran pop-soul keyboardist Neil Larsen’s Hammond organ leads, which regularly shifted from the churchy to the soulful, along with the solos of Spanish guitarist Javier Mas (who also played cittern-style banduria and the lute-like archilaud) provided much the exotic cool behind songs like Darkness (one of six works performed from Cohen’s 2012 album Old Ideas) and Tower of Song.

But the evening’s musical makeup wasn’t without its quiet indulgences. Complimenting Cohen’s wispy baritone was the support of an ultra-tasteful vocal trio made up of Sharon Robinson and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb. Quite often the three deviated from traditional harmony singing and served almost as a Greek chorus to some of Cohen’s deeper, darker songs. “Get ready for the future; it is murder,” Cohen sang with quiet doomsday bravado during the title tune from his 1992 album The Future. The beautifully distanced reply from the vocal trio was as succinct as it was sleek: “Do do do.”

But as worldly as songs like The Future were, as spiritually forthcoming as works like Hallelujah seemed and as regally poetic as chestnuts like Bird on the Wire still sounded, Cohen wasn’t above going low. Anyhow was all sly carnal deviousness, with Cohen singing his decrepit come-ons (“Even though you have to have to hate me, could you hate me less?”) with the sort of whispery sleaze that brought Frank Zappa’s I’m the Slime to mind. There was also the pure after-hours joy of Closing Time, an anthem that simply signaled the arrival of further misadventure.

Perhaps the wildest aspect of the show was how youthful and gracious Cohen appeared. He regularly descended to bended knee to sing, placed his fedora over his heart when a particular solo struck him and seemed genuinely apologetic when announcing to the crowd early into the show that co-guitarist Mitch Watkins was substituting for the recently hospitalized Roscoe Beck (the band’s musical director) on bass.

“I hope you won’t feel any disgrace to the enterprise,” Cohen said.

Not a chance. With Easter (the best one ever, mind you) at hand and songs that thematically ran from the basest urges of earthly desire to contemplations of redemption, Cohen was the epitome of sage, poetic grace.

The competitive spotlight

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Concerto competition winners Chase Miller, Rui Li and Leigh Dixon. Herald-Leader photo by Matt Goins.

The result of a competition is usually an award – a prize that distinguishes the winner’s work from the equally driven contributions of their peers.

What comes at the end of the annual Concerto Competition held in the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra is a different kind of award. In essence, the prize is a spotlight. The winner of this year’s competition will perform as featured soloist at the orchestra’s Friday concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

“The players often have a chance to show their stuff when they have solos in one of the symphonic works we perform,” said UK Symphony music director and conductor John Nardolillo. “But it’s something extra special for them to walk out as the featured soloist of the evening.”

This year’s competition commenced in January with a field of orchestra contestants facing a panel of judges made up of regional artists that included Robert Trevino, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

“The judges were looking for the overall quality of the presentation,” Nardolillo said. “In other words, have they mastered their instrument technically? Were they exquisitely well prepared on this piece of music? Have they thought through what the artistic ideas were in the piece? Did they make a compelling and interesting musical argument to their audience? So it was not just a question of ‘Did they play all the right notes?’ but ‘Did they have something to say within the music?’

Competition winner Rui Li, a doctorate student/trumpeter from Inner Mongolia, viewed the competition in almost narrative terms.

“The most important thing for me was to choose a piece that had a story to tell,” said Li, whose competition piece, Richard Peaslee’s Nightsongs, will be part of tonight’s program along with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D Minor, Op.47 and Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide.

“Everyone deserves to play with the orchestra. So to win, it comes down who has a story that they are ready to share. Of course, every day you have to devote a lot of time to work on fundamentals and practice. For the concerto competition, you have to know the piece really well, know the composer and know some of his other pieces and discover a really, really strong story behind it.”

Having already has earned degrees in economics and international politics in China, Li also made himself visible outside the orchestra – and outside of classical repertoire – over the winter by performing at an Outside the Spotlight concert alongside New York free jazz trumpeter Peter Evans. So how does jazz that borders on the avant garde find common ground with concertos and symphonies?

“In Inner Mongolia, the music is all in an aural tradition,” Li said. “To play written music, especially orchestra music, the composer and conductor have a certain expectation of what is the perfect orchestra sound. You may be playing in different halls for different audiences, but still there is a goal.”

While the Concerto Competition often awards only one winner, the judging panel sometimes awards a second prize if they feel there is another deserving winner and if the UK Orchestra’s concert program can accommodate another soloist. This year, there is a bonus. The second winner is a duo that teamed to perform a double concerto.

Leigh Dixon, a senior in music performance from Louisville on viola, and Chase Miller, a senior from Stanford in music education on clarinet, have been playing together for two years. They began practicing and studying their competition selection, Max Bruch’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola in E Minor, Op.88, in August. It will also be featured in tonight’s concert.

“When we started working on it, we had weekly coachings,” Dixon said. “Then outside of that, we practiced all the time with each other.”

“The fact that we’ve been playing together for so long means we know each other’s playing inside and out,” Miller added. “So we weren’t really looking at this as a competition as much another performance together. Besides that, I’m pretty sure this is the first double concerto that has ever won the competition.”

“All three are fantastic players,” Nardolillo said of the winners. “They are all playing on a professional level. They are all beautifully prepared. They are all presenting an artist’s interpretation, not a student interpretation. And they have all been longtime members of the orchestra and tremendous contributors. So I’m thrilled they are going to be soloists for us.”

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. March 29

at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Admission is free. Call (859) 257-4929.

Critic’s picks 272: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, ‘Old Yellow Moon’; Simone Dinnerstein & Tift Merritt, ‘Night’

old yellow moonThe duet format has long been a staple of every genre of contemporary music. But nowhere has its influence established itself more generously than in country circles. Two new recordings offer wildly different reflections of the country duet formula. One is based on a working partnership than extends back nearly 40 years. The other is new and almost happenstance in comparison.

Old Yellow Moon re-teams Emmylou Harris with one of the first and most acclaimed graduates of her ‘70s-era Hot Band, Rodney Crowell. But the relationship extends deeper than time served. Harris has regularly recorded Crowell’s songs, works that illuminate grim – and often self-inflicted – emotional wounds. But there were merry works, too. In fact, one of Old Yellow Moon’s many highlights is Bluebird Wine, a Crowell tune Harris cut as the first song on her first major label album, 1974’s Pieces of the Sky. This new version gives Crowell most of the vocal chores and a light Americana feel to work off of that is reflective of the entire album.

Old Yellow Moon avoids the perhaps obvious concept of having Harris cutting an entire album of Crowell songs. Instead, the two are placed on equal footing with outside material and country classics mingling with the Crowell works.

It comes as absolutely no surprise that Harris steals the show. Few artists, country or otherwise, have discovered such a sagely (if not slightly world weary) tone to the interpretive power of their singing as Harris. That attribute radiates from Back When We Were Beautiful, a tune with the plaintive gravity of a McGarrigle Sisters classic even though it was penned by Matraca Berg.

“I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully,” Harris sings as the song turns wistful. That might just go down as one of the most ironic lines this Americana matriarch has ever let slip from her lips.

nightNight is an altogether different beast. It teams Tift Merritt – an artist groomed for country stardom whose intensely personal music was instead embraced by Americana audiences – with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The two met when Merritt was recruited by Grammophone magazine to interview Dinnerstein for a profile story. The alliance, unlikely as it seems, bloomed from there.

The resulting album is slight, sparse and graceful without sounding stoic. No other artists are utilized. Much of Night, in fact, has Dinnerstein’s regal playing serving as the primary foil for Merritt’s delicate vocals, from a gorgeously nocturnal take on Billie Holliday’s Don’t Explain to a ghostly variation of I Will Give My Love an Apple.

Toss in the compositions and spirits of Henri Purcell, Brad Mehldau, J.S. Bach, Patty Griffin and Leonard Cohen and you have a duets session that is far more worldly than country.

In performance: The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma (Danville)

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Yo-Yo Ma (center) with members of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Well, it looked like someone was feeling right at home in the Bluegrass.

In contrast to the suit-and-tie formality adopted for a Wednesday concert in Richmond, Yo-Yo Ma walked onstage at the Norton Center for the Arts last night in Danville proudly wearing a Centre College sweatshirt. But then again, the acclaimed cellist and artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble has made a career out of the fascination he has shown for his surroundings. Does that mean the expansive stylistic reach Ma has helped establish for the group over the past 12 years may soon encompass bluegrass? Unlikely. He has other groups that can do that. Instead, Ma and the full 15 member Silk Road group closed out its regional stay by making the Centre crowd feel very much a part of its ever enlarging musical universe.

Roughly half of the program differed from the Richmond concert. Instead of opening with the stark, ancient voice of the oriental sheng, as was the case on Wednesday, last night’s performance ignited the full group all at once with the regal orchestral sweep of Kojiro Umezaki’s Side In Side Out that revolved around the positively enchanted Eastern percussive colors Sandeep Das created on tabla. Strings were then pushed to the forefront with Atashgah, a piece composed by one Silk Road member (violinist Colin Jacobsen) as a vehicle for another (Kayhan Kalhor on the Persian kamancheh).

But the big addition was a second Umezaki piece, Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment from a Crane), a folk tale that brought Ma and percussionist Mark Suter front and center. But even the elegiac accents and percussive jabs created by the group leader played a secondary role to Kojiro Umezaki, who narrated the story of rescue and gratitude but also fortified the trio work with a light but very commanding lead on the shakuhachi flute.

The world colors were just as bounteous on works repeated from Wednesday, from the giddy vocal blasts on Galician bagpipes by Cristina Pato to the endlessly fascinating sounds on the Chinese pipa by Yang Wei that regularly mimicked dulcimer and harp with a sound infinitely more sagely.

Ma literally got the last note in – a single beat of mallet on a huge stage left drum. As a coda, it seemed unplanned, especially to other ensemble members. But the effect was the same – a trigger of smiles that reflected a sense of prime global playfulness.

In performance: The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma (Richmond)

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The Silk Road Ensemble.

RICHMOND — The sounds that best defined the tone, mood and invention of Wednesday night’s remarkable global music summit by the Silk Road Ensemble at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond bookended the program. Curiously, neither instance featured the group’s star chieftain, Yo-Yo Ma.

The first occurred at the beginning of the show-opening Silk Road Suite with Hu Jianbing playing the sheng, a Chinese free-reed instrument that looked like a handheld pipe organ. Though distinctly Asian in heritage, the music Jianbing summoned sounded positively medieval, recalling the medieval European moan of a hurdy gurdy.

The segment was indicative of the program that followed. The Silk Road Ensemble’s inspiration, instrumentation and sometimes even intonation seemed centuries old. Yet the full repertoire was either composed or arranged within the past 12 years. As such, Arabic rhythms, Turkish folk melodies, Gypsy flourishes, contemporary jazz phrasing, and even flirtations with the avant-garde had their say during the evening, the first of the ensemble’s two Central Kentucky concerts this week (it played Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts on Thursday). But the result was a sound that skipped across continental (and cultural) borders as readily as it did musical genres.

The second instance came during the encore, when tabla player Sandeep Das improvised one on one with Kayhan Kalhor on the kamancheh, a small, upright Persian instrument played with a bow. A considerable portion of the Silk Road Ensemble’s music was built around strings and percussion; this duet served as both a concert distillation and summary. It was also, in simpler terms, a positively exuberant display.

Strings and percussion dominated, but there were times — like during the opening display of the sheng — when other sounds were incorporated. Leading that charge was Cristina Pato, who entered singing a startling, operatic Galician melody and later belted away on a bagpipe called a Galician gaita with rock-star vigor. She also mediated between the string and percussion camps by adding sparse, icy piano colors to the brilliantly titled Vijay Iyer jazz cavalcade Playlist for an Extreme Occasion.

What was perhaps most intriguing about the performance was the role played by artistic director Yo-Yo Ma. The internationally acclaimed cellist and musical journeyman was unquestionably Silk Road’s marquee name, but he purposely downplayed his role in the concert.

His only real solo came late in the program during the introduction to a three-piece suite from John Zorn’s Book of Angels. It was lovely as it was brief. Framed by the rest of the group’s multicultural string section, Ma’s playing was powerfully emotive and full of striking clarity. But the suite quickly moved on. The Silk Road Ensemble’s world music — much like the world itself, it seemed — was constantly turning.

Still, Ma’s animated presence was undeniable, from the rich playfulness that fueled Turceasca (the concluding piece in the Silk Road Suite) to the performance finale that had him forsaking his cello to add percussion and a bounteous electric smile to the world party that unfolded merrily around him.

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performs again tonight with a different program at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville (7:30 p.m.; $65-$105). Call (877) 448-7469 or go

Critic’s pick 271: Steven Wilson, ‘The Raven That Refused to Sing’

steven wilsonPity the poor musical genre known as prog. Full of symphonic intent, narrative bravado, and long instrumental passages loaded with tricky shifts in tempo and temperament, it catapulted bands like Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer to stardom in the early ‘70s while fortifying the comparatively underground followings of King Crimson, Caravan and Soft Machine.

Of course, when it fell out of commercial favor later in the decade thanks to the punk revolt, prog was viewed for what it often was – bloated, self-important pop pageantry. Today, in an age when just about any pop genre with a retro slant has an audience, prog was reinvented by bands like Porcupine Tree with a harder, more guitar-centric feel. It was taken to even more metal-esque extremes by trendier acts like the now-defunct Mars Volta.

But The Raven That Refused to Sing, the third solo album by Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson, returns to the heart of prog’s orchestral heyday and makes some intriguing updates.

First off, the album’s six compositions – split evenly between longer suites and more concise pop reflections – operate with a musical vocabulary that extends far beyond the work of Wilson’s contemporaries. Some of the sounds are unapologetically retro. For instance, the Fender Rhodes electric piano colors of Adam Holzman strike like Big Ben against his Jan Hammer-like mini Moog sprints at the onset of The Holy Drinker while the layers of string-like sounds Wilson summons from the very mellotron used by King Crimson on its 1969 debut album underscore Luminol.

The guitar work, primarily by Guthrie Govan and Wilson, broaden the sound. They counter the album’s somewhat weighty storylines with lighter, warmer, pop-inspired melodies on Drive Home that recall the solo recordings of ex-Genesis guitarists Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips. But the team also roars to life regularly with warp-speed, jazz fusion-style runs and generally beefier orchestration that, despite the might, doesn’t paint the music into a stylistic corner in the tradition of many modern prog units, even Porcupine Tree.

Further fleshing out The Raven That Refused to Sing’s longer passages is the flute and saxophone contributions of Theo Travis (a frequent collaborator of King Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp) and the string arrangements of Hatfield and the North/National Health alumnus Dave Stewart. Topping its all is The Raven’s extraordinarily crisp sound. For that, thank engineer and prog-pop everyman Alan Parsons.

Wilson himself operates as ringmaster. Even his lyrics and vocals are downplayed as lead devices in favor of a huge, luscious sound that summons prog’s past from its undignified demise and refashions it to give The Raven That Refused to Sing an altogether fetching voice.

Travels on the Silk Road


Yo-Yo Ma.

The concept of “one world” has been co-opted with such frequency in popular culture that the term has been robbed, despite even the brightest of intentions, of its sense of hope and unity.

Perhaps that’s because the notion of a single global community, especially when it comes to music, is usually promoted by a single melody reflecting a single culture – one that is invariably Western in origin.

In other words, it takes more that a multi-cultural group holding hands singing a Bob Marley tune to reflect a truly global presence.

But what if the music went a bit deeper in meshing styles and inspirations? What if musicians from India, Iran, Japan, China, Spain, Switzerland and the United States formed a musical summit? What if a cherished musical ambassador that has spent much of his career establishing a performance and educational forum for that group to thrive within served as leader? Best of all, what if the resulting music sailed so briskly from one continental culture to another that the listener practically needed a compass to track it?

All of those questions have been posed and explored by the music master cellist Yo-Yo Ma has created with the Silk Road Ensemble. Over the course of 13 years, four albums and extensive touring, the group has allowed the sounds and traditions of over 20 countries to mingle. While Ma sees the Silk Road Ensemble as a sort of cultural exchange where musicians continually learn from one another, he feels their music is anything but foreign.

“Certainly in terms of our hopes, we’re all living on one planet,” said Ma, a multiple Grammy winner, United Nations ambassador of peace and artistic director of the Silk Road Project, from which the Silk Road Ensemble emerged in 2000. “So I think anybody on this planet is aware of, or is curious about, what everybody else is doing. In that sense, we’re just trying to present music that is really not so far out of the range of what people hear any place – in the supermarket, in the elevator or whatever. Music you hear in films or on the radio… that comes from everywhere, also. But what we’re trying to do is be specific about where certain influences come in and how they travel. It’s like being able to present large segments of the world on one stage at any one time and sharing what we found musically.”

A willingness to explore is an essential component to the music of the Silk Road Ensemble. Sure, the instrumentation – made up of contrabass, violin, the Persian kamancheh, the Japanese shakuhachi, the Chinese sheng and pipa, the Spanish gaita, piano, the Indian tabla and, of course, cello – is telling of the global intent. But so is the repertoire. For its two Central Kentucky performances this week, the Silk Road Ensemble will journey into the Jewish traditions of John Zorn’s Book of Angels and the East-meets-West colors of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion.

“All the people I work with share similar values of truly being collaborative and flexible with either our own ideas with one another to really practice imaginative thinking – to really, on a daily basis, use the imagination muscle,” Ma said. “It is something you can discipline. It is something you can make stronger, so that we can pursue things that are kind of unusual to make innovation and tradition work together.”

While the Silk Road Ensemble might differ dramatically from orchestral and chamber settings that established Ma’s career or the Americana themed projects that solidified his reputation as a musical journeyman, one thing remains consistent – an attitude that turns any musical endeavor before him into an exercise of joy.

“You’ve just pinpointed, I think, probably the most important thing – and that’s attitude, the state of mind and whether or not you can work towards being in a positive state of mind. I think that’s key to everything. And it’s not about being slightly happy or polyanna-ish. It’s more like being present and being grateful.

“Look, I’m like anybody else. I love to complain and whine, so don’t get me wrong. But if I’m going to be someplace and be a guest in someone else’s house, I’m not going to scowl. I want to be appreciative. If someone is doing something nice, of course I’m going to be appreciative.

“So, I’ve been married for 34 years. Of those 34 years, I’ve been gone 22. My kids are 29 and 26. And my wife still talks to me. But basically, I’ve missed out on so many years of my children’s lives growing up and my family life. So I could be really depressed on the road. It could be Death of a Salesman. But it is definitely a switch that you turn on. I would get pretty despondent before leaving. I would get sick to my stomach. It would be awful. But once I leave, the choice has been made. The next stage is attitude. That’s the philosophy that leads you to being appreciative and grateful. I am despondent about not being there for my daughter’s play or my son’s soccer game. But I’m also grateful that I have a job. I’m grateful that someone wants me to hear me play.”

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble perform at 8 p.m. March 20 at EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond ($90, $115) and 7:30 p.m. March 21 at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville ($65-$105). Call (859) 622-7469 or go to for info on the Richmond performance. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to for the Danville concert.

Peter Banks,1947-2013

peter banks

Peter Banks.

Imagine being the founding member of a struggling band, enduring all the requisite hardships – the lousy gigs, the lousy lodging, the lousy modes of transport and the miles-beyond lousy pay – that go with establishing your music.

Imagine having your fill but still sticking with it, only to have your band give you the boot. To make matters worse, within a year after your dismissal, your band hits big.

That was the early career trajectory of Peter Banks, the original guitarist for the veteran prog rock band Yes. He died earlier this month of heart failure at age 65.

Peter Banks’ post-Yes career was full of quiet triumphs, like his band Flash, which cut several strong prog-ish songs in the early ’70s but never sustained the innovation for an entire album. The 1973 solo recording Two Side of Peter Banks, an appealing guitar summit, stands as the best of his solo material, although 1994’s all-instrumental Instinct was an underdog work that, despite its reliance on synthesizers and drum machines, was full of spirited Jeff Beck-style playing.

But his albums with Yes – 1969’s Yes and 1970’s Time and a Word, as well as a 1997 collection of BBC recordings from the early years that Banks compiled titled Something’s Coming – remain compelling. Yes was essentially a pop group at the time full of psychedelic hopefulness, tackling everything from the Beatles to Bernstein while creating such early delights as Dear Father, Survival and a very involving cover of The Byrds’ I See You.

Banks’ replacement in Yes, Steve Howe, came up with the more textured guitar sound that became identifiable with the band’s later, star-making music. The rumor mill remained ripe over the years with tales of how little regard the two guitarists had for each other. Banks essentially made it official in the liner notes to Something’s Coming.

My successor, Steve Howe, may delude himself with the myth that Yes started and ended with his involvement,” Banks wrote, stating further that the music he cut with the band in its early years was filled with “the enthusiasm, indulgence, stubbornness and, above all, general youthful playfuless that made Yes fit into the Y section of the music reference books.”

In performance: Gregoire Maret Quartet

gregoire maret

Gregoire Maret

The initial runs that Gregoire Maret played on the harmonica Thursday night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville shot through the surrounding music like rays of sunshine. Warm in tone, subtle in temperament and largely conversational in construction, Maret’s melodies lifted the show-opening Crepuscule Suite out of its synthesized cocoon and set a summery stride that ran largely unabated for 90 minutes.

Throughout the performance, Maret established bold parameters for the chromatic scales of the harmonica. He stripped the instrument of its rural stereotypes and made it sound positively European, save for the occasional Brazilian and Caribbean flourishes. It was hard not to think of the mentoring inspiration of the iconic Toots Thielemans during the more lyrical passages of Lucilla’s Dream or the more Americanized pop-soul exuberance of Stevie Wonder in The Secret Life of Plants (a pastoral revision of an unheralded Wonder instrumental). But the guiding influence last night seemed to the Pat Metheny Group – hardly a surprise given that Maret and his bassist, Ben Williams, were once Metheny protégés.

The Metheny touches surfaced first through the textured instrumentation of Federico Gonzalez Pena, whose often simultaneous balance of electric keyboards and acoustic piano recalled not only the cunning of longtime Metheny sidekick Lyle Mays but the textured orchestration of the Metheny Group’s more popular recordings. When Maret stepped into the mix, his quartet’s multi-cultural charm ignited and his instrument sounded less like a harmonica and more like an accordion.

Everything was polite and tasteful, from engaging dialogues between Maret and Pena to an extended, engaging acoustic bass solo late in the set from Williams (he played clean, Jaco Pastorius-like phrases on electric bass for the rest of the performance). But during the show-closing Manha Du Sol, Maret almost literally locked horns with drummer Marcus Baylor, a Yellowjackets alumnus, leaning in over and around the drum kit to feed off the tireless drive of his bandmate. It was an exchange full of drama and physicality, but one that was still much in keeping with the warm, textural and emotive music Maret conjured out of an instrument no bigger than his fist.

The new voice of jazz harmonica

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Gregoire Maret

The advice Gregoire Maret  received while discovering jazz possibilities for the chromatic harmonica was simple and sage: be yourself.

Simple? Obviously. All aspiring musicians are encouraged to develop a style and sound that is distinctly their own. The sage part can be tagged to the person who gave Maret the advice in the first place: the forefather of jazz harmonica, Toots Thielemans.

“I met Toots early on, when I was just about 17,” said Maret, a native of Switzerland who makes his Kentucky debut Thursday with a performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “I remember him telling me, ‘Listen, if you like the way I play, take it as an example. But grow out of what I do and just find your own way.” But to me, finding my way meant listening to other people.”

And so the young Maret began listening to everything. He soaked up all the classical music and jazz he could find. But the catalyst that brought Maret to the harmonica and planted the seeds for a career that eventually led to collaborations with jazz celebs Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Cassandra Wilson (among others) was an altogether different sound: the blues. He witnessed a harmonica player sit in with blues guitar great Luther Allison as a teen. The way Maret heard, deciphered and appreciated music changed after that.

“I’m not even sure who the guy was. But he came to sit in with Luther. He played the harmonica for the encore and was just incredible. That concert took my breath away. From that point, I just wanted to learn how to play this instrument. The sound and the emotion I could get from it… I mean, I was just hooked.”

After graduating from the Conservatoire Superier de Musique in Geneva, Maret moved to New York to study jazz at the New School University. The move proved to be as big a personal and cultural leap as it was an educational one for the young harmonica stylist.

“It was huge for me, because I came from a small village outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva is already a small city in comparison to New York. I came from the countryside, really. So moving to New York was like Mission: Impossible for me. But I did it for my passion for music.

“It was really difficult because I didn’t know that many people. It just took me a while to get used to it and really feel at home. But music was a huge help. Whenever I had moments where I felt down and lonely, I could always go to a club and check out someone playing. That would really inspire me. I knew then why I was in New York and why I wanted to stay.”

The word on Maret’s music – specifically, an immensely emotive style that regularly won comparisons to the playing of Stevie Wonder and even the great Thielemans – spread quickly. By 2005, he recorded as a member of the Pat Metheny Group on its Grammy-winning The Way Up album and its subsequent tour. But the real career thrill came when Maret toured with Hancock.

“That was like a dream come true for me. Since I was probably 15 years old, I have been all about the Miles Davis quintets – the one with (John) Coltrane and the later one with Herbie and Wayne (Shorter). So to finally have the chance to perform with Herbie was just incredible. I was speechless.

“The way he listens to people on the stage, the way he reacts and interacts with different musicians is incredible. The band just listened and let him teach us, basically. It was a lesson from the master every night.”

Those lessons carry over into Marret’s self-titled 2012 debut album, which includes cameos by Wilson, Thielemans and star bassist Marcus Miller.

“For me, it’s all really about having an experience where people can escape their daily lives and discover a moment of truth that has nothing to do with anything but the instant.

“For me, escaping, in a sense, reality – even for a short minute – is just a beautiful experience that can be brought by music in general. But certain kinds of music have a tendency to bring that out in us more than others. I hope that my music has a little of that in it. My goal is for me to go to that place and to invite the audience to travel with us.”

Gregoire Maret Quartet performs at 7:30 p.m. March 14 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre, 600 West Walnut Street in Danville. Tickets are $30. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to

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