Blue Note Jazz Festival – Napa

Frédéric Yonnet

Appearing Friday, July 28

Using an instrument many have owned but few have mastered, French-born urban jazz harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet’s musical skills and stage presence crush every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about the harmonica.

Regarded for decades as the choice instrument of street musicians and loners who wanted to express themselves through country music or the blues, in Yonnet’s hands the harmonica becomes something completely different; a lead voice in urban jazz, R&B and hip-hop. With each performance, stereotypical walls come tumbling down as Yonnet presents the harmonica in a refreshing and modern context that is boldly stylish, enchantingly cool and absorbingly brilliant.

Just listen to his sound. It funks. It rocks. It hips and hops. It grooves. It sways. It testifies. It prays. It has a reverence for gospel, blues and jazz while appealing to a generation bred on pop rock and hip-hop. His current collaboration with Dave Chappelle aptly called, Dave Chappelle’s Juke Joint featuring Frederic Yonnet and the Band with No Name, showcases both his harmonica chops, improvisational skills, and music-directing prowess. The show, which takes partygoers on a musical journey reminiscent of the Juke Joints of the South, segues into a band vs. DJ battle with hip-hop legend Derrick “DJ D-Nice” Jones. Conceived by Chappelle and Yonnet, it’s part concert, part comedy and all-out unpredictable when their famous friends stop by to jam.

Yonnet’s impressive style has led to televised and live performances, tours and recordings with some of the heaviest hitters in the music business including legends Stevie Wonder, Prince and David Foster, singer-songwriter and musicians Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, jazz sweetheart Katharine McPhee, R&B artists Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, The Roots, Usher Raymond, Robert Glasper, Mint Condition, and hip-hop cipher Talib Kweli.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yonnet quickly pivoted in order to maintain his livelihood. Despite the cancellation of all his shows, he decided to get the band together to rehearse. He believed the music would be good for their souls. On March 29, 2020, Yonnet opened the windows of a gutted-out property and invited the neighbors to “eavesdrop” as they practiced, hoping it would be good for their neighbors’ souls as well. And, yes, in these times of physical distancing, they played it safe! They sanitized the area with UV light and used hand sanitizer and masks. They defined the walls of the rooms with plastic “curtains” to create a “Breaking Bad meets Dexter”-inspired space. They opened the windows for air, and didn’t mind if the sound traveled.

It was so well received, they decided to live stream so the world could listen in. And it did! They were the only band to perform together consistently throughout the quarantine WITH a live audience. As a result, they received print and broadcast media coverage from around the world including CNN, BBC, AFP, TF1, France24, France 2 and numerous other outlets.

Yonnet’s harmonica is the haunting instrumental sound you hear in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix film, “The Irishman” (2019) and it’s the telling tune that evokes emotion in Scorsese’s upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023) on Apple TV+. Yonnet has been featured on numerous films and television shows, including two episodes of “The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor” honoring Billy Crystal (2007) and Dave Chappelle (2019) on PBS and Netflix respectively; an episode of “The Kennedy Center Honors,” honoring Gladys Knight (2022), Katharine McPhee’s PBS SoundsStage Special (2018) and “Q85: A Musical Celebration for Quincy Jones” (2018) on BET. Yonnet’s image and music appears briefly in the Warner Brothers film and encore release of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” (2018).

Yonnet signature sound can be heard on two tracks on reggae legend The Wailers first studio album in 25 years, released in August 2020. Rolling Stone magazine refers to Yonnet as “Prince’s killer harmonica player,” and praise he has received from comedian Dave Chappelle, contemporary jazzman Bob James, songstress Patti Austin and producer Pharrell Williams affirm his mission to change the way the music industry, musicians and enthusiasts regard the pocket-size reed instrument.

Citing Wonder as a mentor and friend, Yonnet was honored when Wonder tapped him to perform harmonica parts on the Songs in the Key of Life Performance Tour, 2014-16. Wonder performed the entire double album as part of the 44-city tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the most critically acclaimed album of his career. On the tunes, “Have a Talk with God” and “Mama’s Call,” Yonnet demonstrates his mastery of the diatonic harmonica by expertly mimicking the chromatic melody Wonder originally performed on the studio album. “He’s so good at playing harmonica that another man good at harmonica hired him,” said Chappelle during an introduction of Yonnet.

These days, the U.S.-based Yonnet travels with his pre-amp, microphone and more than 50 diatonic harmonicas. “I’m pretty intense on the harmonica and I like to have the ‘sharpest ax’ in my pocket at all times.” To be sure, he’s not afraid to wield it. There aren’t many musicians who would go tête-à-tête with Stevie Wonder on the harmonica but Yonnet has proved himself more than capable. “Frédéric Yonnet — a Wonder disciple — had a crazy harmonica duel that almost sent Stevie flying off the stage in a frenzy,” said Fox News following their performance at Madison Square Garden. Without a doubt, Yonnet’s friendship with Wonder has been his biggest musical inspiration. (more)

At the same show in 2007, Prince first witnessed Yonnet’s expert musicianship, exhilarating panache and inexhaustible stage presence. It would be months before their paths crossed again, but when they did, Prince seized the opportunity to have Yonnet jam with him and his band at a house party. “Genius recognizes genius,” said saxophonist Mike Phillips, who performed with them that night and witnessed the energy that Yonnet brought to the band. After that, Yonnet recorded with Prince and performed with him as a featured guest on numerous shows, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on Prince’s 20Ten European tour.

While Yonnet enjoys the excitement of performing with some of the world’s greatest music legends, he knows that it’s the technical mastery of his instrument — along with innovative collaborations and solo projects — that will earn him recognition as one of the greatest harmonica players in the world.