Yvonnick Prené, « Merci Toots »

Yvonnick Prené, 10 février 2015



“Merci Toots” is the latest album from jazz harmonicist, Yvonnick Prené. Recorded in New York on January 2nd 2015 with guitarist Pasquale Grasso, the vibrant collection of songs pays tribute to the jazz harmonica pioneer, Toots Thielemans, who retired just last year. “I discovered Toots Thielemans for the first time when I was 16 on an album entitled, ‘Only Trust Your Heart’”, Prené recalls, “I immediately loved his sound and the spirit behind the notes. The music had a lot of emotion.”

The harmonica-guitar duet, Prené and Grasso, recorded nine classic compositions by a number of jazz greats, including Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tad Dameron and Thielemans himself. Like Thielemans with pianist, Kenny Werner, Prené found a perfect musical match with Grasso. Prené commented, “The duo format is challenging. We wanted to make an album which reflects the interaction that can happen on stage when two musicians enjoy playing together.” From the first few notes, the music of the record sings with all the warmth, breadth, depth and surprise of truly spontaneous creativity.

Parisian-born Prené recalls, “i met Pasquale Grasso, 26, during a jam session at Smalls in 2012. He astonished me right away with his incredible technique and knowledge of jazz history.” The pair of European ex-pats, who both chose to call New York home since 2007-2008, discovered their shared love for Bebop. This is another parallelism with Toots Thielemans, who emigrated from Belgium to settle in the Big Apple fifty years earlier, to perform with Charlie Parker and George Shearing, among others.

What Prené, 30, and Grasso have in common — besides an erudite grasp of post-war jazz traditions, is their sensitivity to phrases and dynamics. The way Prené and Grasso play seems to coax an energy from each other that can only be rightfully translated into a charged performance. Despite being a duo, they create the effect of a quarter with a single cohesive vision. Prené attributes this musical connivance to the many times they’ve shared the stage together. “We’ve played countless occasions together in different settings–from duo to quintet. So there was already a lot of trust when we entered the studio. But during the recording session, I chose tunes we hadn’t played before, such as ‘Little Blue Girl’, “Dameronia’, ‘Round Midnight’, which capture a certain freshness,” Prené says.

Prené stays within the mainstream repertoire in this homage to Toots. The album includes nine covers–Gillespie’s “Bebop”, Monk’s “RoundMidnight”, Parker’s “Koko”, Bud Powell’s “Celia”, Dameron’s “Dameronia”, followed by two standards, Raye’s “Star Eyes” and Rogers’ “Little Blue Girl”, and closing with Thielemans’ signature piece, “Bluesette”.

Moreover, they update these songs with new twists and mesmerizing improvisations. Their artistry rises to the challenge of playing simply as a duo. “It’s an ideal context to showcase the chromatic harmonica’s singing colors,” remarks Prené. The result is an album that blazes its own path while still acknowledging its genius predecessor while shining a spotlight on the jazz harmonica for a new generation. The album’s U.S. release is scheduled for February 1.



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