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.