The chromatic harmonica is an instrument still finding its footing in the world of modern jazz music. Yvonnick Prené’s mission is to put the harmonica in its rightful place in the pantheon of instruments used to improvise. He makes a convincing case on his new recording, Listen!, as he eschews the trumpet in the classic jazz quintet setting and replaces it with the chromatic harmonica.
The Parisian born Prené has made New York City his home since 2007. His mastery of the chromatic harmonica came through years of study, including time at the Sorbonne, Columbia University, City College of New York, and the New School. His studies included time spent with mentors like Lee Konitz, Charles Persip, Charles Tolliver, and Reggie Workman. Throughout this entire period, Prené has been an active member of the City’s jazz scene.
Prené has placed the harmonica in many musical settings, including an organ trio on his last recording, New York Moments (Steeplechase, 2019), and a duo with guitarist Pasquale Grasso, Merci Toots (Self-Produced, 2015). The sound of the classic jazz quintet of the 1950s and 1960s has been Prené’s favorite for years.
Though it may seem an unusual choice, the harmonica proves to be a great option in this ensemble format as it has the same range as the trumpet and blends well with the tenor saxophone’s lower resonance. For inspiration, Prené looked to many of the greats, including Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver.
Prené chose a dream ensemble for his recording session at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prené loves saxophonist Dayna Stephen’s magical sound, which he likens to the angular approach of Wayne Shorter. Drummer Bill Stewart has been a longtime favorite and Prené felt that his singular conception of time and sound was just right for this project. Prené met pianist Kevin Hays while at the New School and has always appreciated the pianist’s unique voice that regards the tradition reverently, but with a certain freedom. Friend Clovis Nicolas holds the rhythm section together with his fluid bass playing. Prené invited trumpet great Jeremy Pelt to help produce and direct session.
The recording begins with Clovis Nicolas’s snappy arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Dig,” Prene’s harmonica and Stephens’s saxophone blending wonderfully on the shout chorus, bringing new life to the tune. Prené’s minor blues “Mystic Minor” is set in a floating ¾ featuring every performer and was inspired by the writing of Silver and Benny Golson, as is Prené’s “The Dip,” a heavily swinging piece with a dramatic head. Prené wrote “Boosted” when he fell ill after his Covid vaccination booster shot in December 2021. The piece is harmonically open, allowing the harmonica and saxophone space for a freely improvised dialogue.
Bassist Lorin Cohen wrote “Just Have Faith,” a beautiful ballad that was a feature for Prené in Cohen’s band and shares the quiet but dignified spirit of the legendary John Coltrane in the harmonica’s harmonically free improvisation. A pointillistic, upbeat reading of Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps to Heaven” features the producer Pelt’s charismatic trumpet on pianist Steve Feifkee’s striking arrangement. Prené learned Neil Moret’s “She’s Funny That Way” while studying with saxophone legend Lee Konitz, channeling the spirit of the master saxophonist Lester Young. The recording concludes with Jack King’s standard, “How Am I To Know,” a tricky piece that Prené learned on gigs with Nicolas and that serves as a dynamic send off with a fantastic feature for pianist Hays.
Yvonnick Prené has taken on the challenge of pushing the chromatic harmonica front and center in the jazz sphere. To do so, he placed the instrument in the standout role in one of the music’s most revered ensemble configurations, the quintet, showing not only his virtuosity but also his knowledge of the hard bop language. Prené’s Listen! does well to advance the harmonica’s weight in the jazz world.
released January 20, 2023
Yvonnick Prené - chromatic harmonica
Dayna Stephens - tenor sax
Jeremy Pelt - trumpet 6, producer
Kevin Hays - piano
Clovis Nicolas - bass
Bill Stewart - drums
I heard Oh play with Dave Douglas/Joe Lovano at a Wayne Shorter celebration concert in Montreal (2013?) several years ago and was very impressed, and I wasn't the only one, based on a few overheard conversations! Randomly thought to look her up. Great record, super talented musician! Mohan Thomas
I had to get this record when I read it about being announced, Chris Potter is our generation's Michael Brecker and a live recording at the legendary village is surely gonna hit all the right places . Cop this Ali.E.Emmanuel