One of the highlights of last year’s North Sea Jazz Festival, which will not take place this year due to the corona crisis, was a duo concert by two brilliant improvisers: Edmar Castaneda (harp) and Grégoire Maret (harmonica). What they both delivered on stage in terms of musicianship, teamwork, improvisation, and the creation of a certain atmosphere still resonates to this day. Now, harmonica player Grégoire Maret has released his new album, appropriately titled “Americana”. Its blend of jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, blues, and pop embodies an exceptionally healing force.
Grégoire’s mates on the album are Bill Frisell (guitars), Romain Collin (piano, keyboards, effects), and Clarence Penn on drums. Two pieces were written by Bill Frisell, two pieces by Grégoire, one by Romain and one a joint effort of Grégoire and Romain. In addition, there are cover versions of songs by Jimmy Webb, Mark Knopfler, and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).
The intimacy and introspective stance starts with Mark Knopfler‘s “Brothers In Arms” from the 1985 Dire Straits LP of the same name. Reducing its core theme to a minimum, Grégoire is able to put a beautiful, new spin on this pop tune, creating more of a lament and longing and thus, setting the pace for this extraordinary album. The bitter sweetness of harmonica and piano in this sincerely plaintive interpretation is just amazing. Bill plays banjo on his own “Small Town” (from his 2009 album “Disfarmer”; he recorded it also with bassist Thomas Morgan for the 2017 album “Small Town”) and opens the palette here to some country and folk-inspired playing. His “Rain, Rain” (from the 1999 country blues album “Good Dog, Happy Man”, one of his best to date I think) comes across as this color of vast open prairie-type never-ending landscapes, creating a sort of strange wanderlust which the three players convey with an amazingly subdued, magic fervor.
But even the new and original songs on offer, like Romain’s “San Luis Obispo”, sound as if they had always been around. How I wish I could have heard this sunny and optimistic-sounding tune back in 2000 on my trip from Monterey to Los Angeles when I also drove through this wonderful Californian small-town dream. Perfect soundtrack. There is this longing and wistfulness again on Grégoire’s own “Back Home”, where Clarence also appears with his lush brushes, and this profound contemplation on the piano-harmonica duo performance on “The Sail”, the second of the leader’s compositions. The svelte lyricism of Bon Iver‘s “Re:Stacks” is sublime. Jimmy Webb‘s classic “Wichita Lineman”, once again rendered in a slower than slow tempo, is a heartfelt tribute.
“Americana” concludes with the elegiac “Still”, written by Grégoire and Romain, and further confirming that this is a splendid 50-minute addictive trip.