Jazz does better when it’s not Debate Night—this based on the enormous audience at the Sculpture Garden last night at 5:00, and they didn’t come for the food. This was a Frederic Yonnet crowd.
The French harmonica player has a fat, meaty sound with a bluesy edge and lots of chords, in contrast to the clean-but-shrill sound that usually characterizes jazz harmonica. Festival CEO Charlie Fishman introduced him as “the Mick Jagger of Harmonica” (Jagger actually plays harmonica, but never mind), and that somewhat odd description turned out to be dead on: playing covers of R&B artists past and present (Isaac Hayes‘ “Welcome Back,” Dionne Warwick‘s “Walk On By,” Stevie Wonder‘s “Visions”), Yonnet displayed the swagger and come-get-me attitude of the Rolling Stones, but also the lyricism that evokes the vocalists he’s saluting.
Which is a good thing, since the band was cheese. They were all more than proficient, mind you, but it was smooth-jazz: repetitive, groove-based, and bland. Not until their funky take on Al Jarreau‘s “Use Me (‘Til You Use Me Up)” (with singer Brandon Combs sitting in) did they show any teeth. But it didn’t matter: Yonnet was the show, and he delivered.