Editors' pick

Frederic Yonnet


Editorial Review

Tickets (maximum four tickets per adult) are distributed the day of performance at the Carter Barron box office, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW, beginning at noon, or at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tickets go fast! There are no scheduled rain dates. Picnic areas are available in the park around the amphitheater. For more information, call The Post at 202-334-6808 or the Carter Barron concert line, which will have updated information on weather-related cancellations, at 202-426-0486. All concerts start at 7:30 p.m.

A Master on a mission

If you have big plans for a pocket-size instrument, it doesn't hurt to have Stevie Wonder in your corner. Or Prince or Erykah Badu or the Jonas Brothers. Or for that matter, comedian Dave Chappelle.

That's just the case for D.C. harmonicist Frdric Yonnet, who kicks off the Goingoutguide.com's free Weekend Summer Concert series tonight at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

Think we're kidding?

Chappelle touts in a 2006 YouTube video that he introduced Wonder to Yonnet, who had the nerve to pull out his harmonica and blow a little. "I was worried for him," cracks Chappelle. "Now they hang out every Tuesday and Wednesday."

Well, maybe not that often, but whenever Wonder comes to town, Yonnet can expect a call. The two last teamed up when Wonder played Verizon Center in May.

Unlike Wonder, who plays a chromatic harmonica designed to navigate a 12-note scale, Yonnet has mastered its diatonic cousin, the compact harmonica mostly favored by folk, blues and rock musicians. In Yonnet's hands, however, the smaller harp is capable of sustaining remarkably fluid, jazz-inspired improvisations without compromising its inherently soulful character. Others have explored a similar path -- Yonnet points to Howard Levy, best known for his work with Bla Fleck and the Flecktones, as an early influence -- but make no mistake: Yonnet is on a mission to open ears and minds.

"It's a been a constant effort to convince and almost convert people to the full potential of the instrument," the 37-year-old French native says from his home on Capitol Hill. "So many people have been used to hearing the harmonica as a side instrument, almost a toy, they don't take it seriously. And musicians are the first ones not to take it seriously."

A former drummer accustomed to lugging a bulky kit from gig to gig, Yonnet was seduced by the harmonica's portability -- that and a certain je ne sais quoi.

"There's something so amusing about the harmonica that is undeniable," he says. "It fits in your pocket, it's inexpensive, it creates this wide range of sounds -- it can sound like a violin, a saxophone, a guitar and sometimes even like a harmonica. The very convenience is definitely a plus, and on top of that it's underestimated."

The harp remains his "best friend," Yonnet says, but playing the instrument has always posed significant challenges. Early on, he fixated on one question: "How do you create a chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica?" With practice and a lot of trial and error, Yonnet says, came the solution and the rewards. "Once you pass through that door, there are so many more colors and options for sound, basically, colors to express yourself. It's like the colors on your musical palette are multiplied."

Not surprisingly, some prominent pop stars have been eager to draw from Yonnet's palette, including Prince, who frequently showcases the harmonicist as his "special guest" in concert. Badu and the Jonas Brothers have also collaborated with him.

But Yonnet is devoting most of his time these days to pursuing his dreams as a solo recording artist. "Reed My Lips," his third CD, will be out later this year. A smart blend of contemporary jazz, pop, blues, funk and hip-hop, the album is likely to broaden his following. And thanks to an interactive online feature, fans can sample tracks and help shape the final mixes and artwork by purchasing a "Reality CD" download card on his Web site or at concerts.

"The idea is to share with the audience the music before it's complete, in several key points in the creative process," Yonnet says. "It'll be interesting to have the audience give me some input: what they like, what they hear and what kind of shape they want the project to take."

Several notable pop artists, including Badu, are also contributing comments and suggestions that are posted on the site, adding to the discussions.

No doubt additional feedback will come from local fans who first became acquainted with Yonnet when he was an artist in residence at the Music Center at Strathmore in 2006. The experience, he recalls, was invaluable. "They're really putting their money where their mouth is by mentoring artists they believe in," Yonnet says. "We still have an amazing relationship today. They actually helped push me to write a commission piece at a time when I was having difficulty focusing."

Still, nothing excites Yonnet more than the opportunity to perform in concert, primarily because he's an improviser at heart. When he shares the bill with Nasar Abadey and Supernova at Carter Barron, he'll be unveiling some new tunes, but more important, he and his horn-powered ensemble plan to be fully engaged with the audience.

"Every time I perform, my band is on its toes because they know I'm going to flip the script on them," he says, explaining that he's constantly reacting to the crowd response. "It's a conversation of energy, basically. I feel the excitement and I'm giving the excitement back to them."

--Mike Joyce, June 2010