Yvonnick Prené Listen!
One can count the number of jazz harmonicists practically on one hand, at least the most well-known ones such as Grégoire Maret, Hendrik Muerkens, and the legendary Toots Thielemans. Enter upstart chromatic harmonica master, Parisian born, New York-based Yvonnick Prené. If we’re not mistaken Prené’s previous recording was a trio date, 2019’s New York Moments (Steeplechase). On Listen! Prené, who has been playing in New York for the past fifteen years, essentially joins the front line of the classic jazz quintet by replacing the trumpet. Nonetheless, given that the repertoire includes two Miles Davis pieces, Prené had the good sense to enlist trumpeter Jeremy Pelt as producer, who also guests on the Davis track “Seven Steps to Heaven.” Prené also called on a formidable group of musicians to support his foray, with tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Kevin Hays, drummer Bill Stewart, and bassist Clovis Nicolas, the latter of whom is releasing his own album on Sunnyside in early March with Stewart and Pelt as part of his quartet.
With the goal of a sound resembling the classic jazz quintets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the harmonicist looked too iconic players such as Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver in addition to Davis. The selections for the session alone were enough to convince Pelt to accept the invitation to produce even though he hadn’t heard of Prené or his playing prior. In the liners, Pelt describes the sound of the harmonica as being closest to the human voice. You’ll likely agree with that notion form the inception when hearing Prené’s opening solo on Miles Davis’ “Dig,” at times sounding as airy as a flute but also blending well with Stephens’ tenor on the shout chorus.
We next hear three consecutive originals. The minor blues “Mystic Minor” gives room for each quintet member with a sound firmly rooted in the writing of Silver and Benny Golson. Prené’s fluidity and articulation are especially striking as we’ve all heard more than our fair share of sloppy harmonica players, albeit mostly in other genres. His tone often lies somewhere between a muted trumpet and an alto flute. The floating ¾ time measure here continues through “Dip,” which begins with a sturdy, robust head and evolves into a strong swinger, emblematic of the classic quintet sound as the harmonic and tenor replicate the sax-trumpet attack with an interesting, softer harmonic. On the other hand, “Booster,” named for a bad reaction to an additional Covid shot, following its catchy head, is rooted in open harmonics allowing for free wheeling, spirited conversations between the two frontline “horns” while the rhythm section has their own animated take.
The first ballad appears in the form of bassist Lorin Cohen’s standout track “Just Have Faith.” Prené often played this tune while in Cohen’s band, so it was a natural choice, as he plays both lyrically and freely, reaching stunning gorgeous levels when paired with Stephens on the chorus. Pianist Steven Feifke, one of today’s most accomplished big band arrangers, arranged the Feldman/Davis classis “Seven Steps to Heaven,” to a more upbeat tempo. While at first it seems odd not to hear the sound of Miles’ muted trumpet, Pelt’s presence mitigates it somewhat and the combo executes it with unsurprising precision, in no small part due to Stewart’s superior kit work and brilliant soloing from Pelt, Stephens, Hays, and the leader.
The ballad “She’s Funny That Way,” written by Neil Moret, which Prené learned from the late altoist Lee Konitz, channels the spirit of the first major tenor giant, Lester Young, with the harmonicist in peak lyrical form while Hays plays ever so tenderly. This is the piece where one can most easily envision a vocal in place of the harmonica. The closing Jack King standard “How Am I to Know,” is a strong feature for Hays and the musicians deftly navigate a tricky rhythm, exhibiting a mastery of the hard bop language.
Prené not only seems to be a fit in the quintet configuration, he shines it with a versatility that encompasses not only hard bop but touching ballads, and hints of the blues. Bravo! We can’t wait for an encore.
- Jim Hynes