The advice Grégoire Maret got 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 distinctly their own. The sagely part can be tagged to the person giving the advice: the forefather of jazz harmonica, Toots Thielemans.
"I met Toots early on, when I was just about 17," said Maret, 37, a native of Switzerland who makes his Kentucky debut on Thursday with a performance at Centre College's 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 such jazz celebs as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Cassandra Wilson, among others, was an altogether different sound: the blues. He saw 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," he says. "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 Le Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique in Geneva, Maret moved to New York to study jazz at The New School. The move proved to be as big of 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."
Word spread quickly about Maret's music — an immensely emotive style that regularly won comparisons to the playing of Stevie Wonder and even the great Thielemans. By 2005, he recorded as a member of the Pat Metheny Group on its Grammy-winning album The Way Up and was part of its subsequent tour. But the real career thrill came when Maret toured with Hancock.
"That was like a dream come true for me," he says. "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 carried over into Maret'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."
IF YOU GO
Grégoire Maret Quartet
When: 7:30 p.m. March 14
Where: Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts Weisiger Theatre, 600 West Walnut St., Danville
Tickets: $30; call 1-877-448-7469 or go to Nortoncenter.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.