The harmonica, like the accordion and other free reed aerophones, doesn't come with as much built-in room for expression as other wind instruments, which is what makes Gregoire Maret's playing so unique. For his quartet show at Zinc Bar, Maret relied on loose melodicism, carefully organized ornaments and just the right amount of "out" playing to give his playing the necessary amount of personal style. Amidst soulful jazz, the chromatic harmonica tends to recall Stevie Wonder
and while Maret's melodies certainly hinted at Wonder's inflection, he was easily adept at shredding, pulling down lively and impassioned bebop-based lines that would usually be found in a Joe Henderson
solo. Lest they forget the power of the melodica, Maret reminded the audience just what he was capable of at the climax of a solo with several two-note harmonies like a piano would do.
Maret's music for quartet had both an optimistic and melancholy quality to it, drawing from jazz, soul and Latin music. The emotional quality of his compositions became more important than the devices they usedas an example, the barely noticeable use of 7/4 time in more than one of his compositions. Some of Maret's music was based around episodes, like one composition that segued out of a modern jazz groove into a march that settled itself around a pulsating piano texture. The other members of the quartet bolstered Maret's music: Ben Williams
There is something about guitarist Lionel Loueke's blend of West African/Beninese music with jazz that avoids the dreaded "fusiony" sound that was so very beaten-to-death in the 90's-late 2000's. Loueke's trio set during the festival might have provided some clues. It could have been his willingness to embrace jazz's extremely adventurous harmonic sense in the context of more native music, wherein he laid out his Leslie-powered soul guitar sound and injected it with obtuse, darting lines. It could also have been that his use of wordless vocals went deeper than a Bobby McFerrin
impersonation, using a vocal harmonizer and other electronics to create a one-man-chorus approach to lyricism (both figuratively and literally). One component that definitely brought his music out of the typical world music framework was his use of sidemen. Electric bassist Michael Olatuja
acted as both a pocket master and a 4-stringed cousin to some of Loueke's more classical-guitar-style solos, and Mark Giuliana applied his usual twists in timekeeping and drum coloration combinations.
Whatever the explanation may be, Loueke, like many other skilled musicians on the jazz scene, exhibited a strongly personal sound using different musical attributes. His music seemed to toggle between two modes, one being a grooving percussiveness accentuated by the pops and thumps of Loeuke's voice and guitar, the other a much quieter ballad sensibility. In the latter, Loueke used slowly strummed and cycling chords in tandem with a wordless melody on "Wida," a tribute to a village in Benin. Some of his comping was extremely sparse, only eking out a few tones for Olatuja's mobile bass solo. Much like Maret's set, though, Loueke's set was well paced and finished with a final flourish of Giuliana's signature mathematical beat music.
Iyer's trio is one of the few working ensembles that has exhibited collective growth as a singular unit. At Le Poisson Rouge, Iyer showed that he continuously expands his color palette as a pianist, a trait that served the trio more than it served himself. Stephan Crump
's textures as a bassist (ranging from rounded to sliding notes that suggest a synthesizer sound, to scratchy, against-the-bridge textures) more thoroughly contributed to the trio's eclecticism than ever before. Chris Persad Group, The Dautaj, Marcus Gilmore , Coquito, Fri
played the living "the drum sample" in Iyer's music, a demanding role that required him to operate in muted drum textures, irregular grooves and fluttering bombast. Therein lies the immediately recognizable sound of the Vijay Iyer trio, one that pulled no punches at Winter Jazzfest.