French harpist Paul Lassey talks about the local scene, harmonica, Charlie McCoy & Toots Thielemans

"This music touches the heart with its simplicity: because it is simple, it allows immediate expressiveness; feelings have the color of the blues"

Paul Lassey: C'est la Blues vie

Paul Lassey is a French harpist from Lorraine, was born in 1965. From 18yo, he discovers diatonic and chromatic harmonica through respectively Charlie Mc Coy and Toots Thielemans’s records, but realizes later - early 90s, with a Jean-Jacques Milteau masterclass – this entire instrument’s potential. He then makes his debut in various bands from France: Kilimanjaro, Packard Blues and MG Blues Band.



Professional musician since 1998, he turns his harmonica player career into teaching. In the early 2000s, thanks to the “Planète Clé de Sol” association, he uses harmonica as a therapeutic instrument for asthmatic children, through the Nancy Brabois hospital’s “breathe workshops”. The harmonica-dedicated websites he administrates since years now have contributed to his popularity. In 2009, his website is even referenced in Winslow Yerxa and Jean-Jacques Milteau’s book “harmonica for dummies”. As forum’s webmaster, he regularly organizes France-wide sessions, and gives lessons at his home, or to students all around the globe via Internet.
His first album “Après l’orage” is released in 2008 and guests Jean-Jacques Milteau who shares the “Nancy” composition with him - Nancy, France, city where he comes from. He broadcasted a rough 260 pedagogic videos on youtube and edited 5 partitions and tablatures booklets that can be downloaded on website His last website, dedicated to chromatic harmonica, has been recently released with the famous jazz harpist Olivier Ker Ourio’s sponsorship. He’s regularly on stage with Xavier Fischer and Pascal Lienard as part of “The Faro’s” trio, and with Serge Braidotti, the guitarist Michel Fedrizzi and more recently the composer-songwriter Christophe Freyssac as part of the “The Fat of Life” band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Translation from French Emmanuel Andreu


Paul, when was your first desire to become involved with the Harmonica & who were your first idols?
As many of us (harmonica player), I had a harmonica in hands when I was a kid, but it’s my sister who offered me more at the age of 15 years and I had my first two vinyl records shortly after: Charlie McCoy "No. 4 Nashville sound", and a compilation by Toots Thielemans, "I love jazz”. Nothing to do with the blues ... anyway...


What characterize Paul Lassey’s sound & your progress?
I think it is precisely this unlikely mix between Charlie and Toots. The expressiveness of the diatonic reinforces my chromatic play and colorful richness of the chromatic my diatonic one. I never tried to choose, I just love these two instruments – so different and so similar together.
As for my progress, I think it's "Bird" who once said to a young musician that was asking him what was needed to hope playing like him someday: "Learn your scales, learn your scales, learn your scales, learn your scales, learn your scales... and when you’re done with learning your scales... forget all that shit, and play!"…
And here I am... except I have not finished learning my scales
I listen a lot to go further!


How do you describe Paul Lassey’s model of Brodur custom harps?
Raymond Brodur is a wonderful man who has been able permeates his passion in the manufacture of these magnificent models.
The type of wood used is Mozambique Ebony, already in use in “lutherie” for clarinet or bagpipes.
Its resistance to moisture and therefore saliva is exceptional, its “graining” is sober and its dark color gives clean lines out of the box. Raymond and I did put our knowledge together to make it easier obtaining overnotes, without sidelining the classic play: in either case, the blades don’t jam.
According to my will, there are a limited number of models: 100. We sold half currently. They are numbered and will gain value overtime, as each and every beautiful and rare object.

                                                                                         Photo by Xavier Fisher

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
This is a very stark choice. I like Sonny Boy Williamson 2, Little Walter, or James Cotton. I can’t choose between "Help me" and "my Babe". I also love the titles of Muddy Waters’ repertoire - and he, talking about harmonica players, knows lots, and had numbers...


What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
No matter we are black, white or any other skin color, no matter we like rock, country, reggae, classical, no matter we are lawyers, doctors, businessmen, workers, employees: we are men, women or children : listening to a blue note can capsize our hearts. The blues reunites souls.
One can like or dislike a particular rock guitar riff, this or that reggae beat, this or that composer, but when a blues harmonica player play the blue notes, they are widely accepted for the thrills they provide It’s something I cannot explain, that’s just the way it is.
Like many artists, my sensitivity is my source. The blues is the simplest expression, and no matter what style of music I do, it is present in my play because it expresses this sensitivity.
I don’t think that much to the notes I play anymore today, I just let them come...


What do you learn about yourself from the music? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Whether it is in my private life or in music, I am impregnated in listening to others and being tolerant. These two things are inseparable from the mindset of anybody who wants a teacher. For me, music can be summed up like this: listening and tolerance. I think that becoming a good musician goes through being a nice human.

                                                                                         Photo by Xavier Fisher

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your meet with Charlie McCoy? What advice has given to you?
I met Charlie in the early 2000s. I was at the forefront of one of his concerts and was very impressed with the speed of his playing, which contrasted with its very stable and stoic posture in front of the microphone. I even thought he was playing in play-back... but after the concert, when I asked him how he did, he showed me his "trick of the jaw"... I was speechless I then applied this to my game, and I made a video. Charlie was also very kind and attentive; all these great musicians are so humble and lovely!


What are some of the most memorable gigs, jams and workshops you've had?  
There are many! The most beautiful concert I've ever seen was Jason Ricci at St Aignan, France, in the festival "Harmonica sur Cher”, 2006. Wonderful because at this time, Jason was suffering in his life and after a few notes this is all I was able to hear and see... His pain exploded on stage, he offered himself to the public and this is the first time I saw so many women and men lining up to buy his album at the end of the concert. It was a moment of a rare intensity, that I had the luck to share with my two buddies Eric Frerejacques and Julien Cormier. The three of us were shocked then, and I think this is still keeping us together. It was exceptional. I learned a lot that night.
The second concert that really touched me was that by Toots Thielemans in the Paris, France region, in Enghien’s casino, around ten years ago. It was very affecting because he was punctuating his concert with anecdotes about his life and encounters with the jazz greats. He moved me to tears three times during the concert, and I was lucky enough to spend the rest of the evening with him, thanks to Olivier Ker Ourio who introduced us. Toots kindly invited us to join him for an evening that was organized in his honor; again, I had a wonderful moment: what humility and kindness in this giant of jazz! I learned a lot that night too



What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
I am not very well placed to give advice in this area. I think the only thing that works since immemorial times is perseverance, isn’t it? Hang on! Do what you love and meet even more people seems really essential, but I’m not inventing anything new here


Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues harmonica?
Yes, of course, as long as the oldest ones will remain to show them the way. The magic of the blues is that it's going great speechless, you play three notes to a young musician and his youth will do the rest


You had pretty interesting project about the harmonica as a therapeutic tool, among children with asthma. Where did you get that idea?
Unfortunately this project was stopped several years ago. I wrote an article at the time.


Tell me about the beginning of How did you come up with it?
The first version is from 1998! I simply used to record a few shots that I shared, then I added links, and some stuff. I just wanted to share my passion for the harmonica, and precisely this passion made what it is today. I try to feed its content regularly, it's not easy but I care.

                                                                                         Photo by Xavier Fisher

How easy is it to learn harp from books and videos? What difference has a self-taught by one who has studied music?
I taught myself with books, the ones Jean-Jacques Milteau wrote of course: he did a lot for the practice of harmonica’s democratization in France; and with albums... from the same author but I would have saved time if I had internet in these years ...
I learned music very later, with books also, and then software. I think I took the Internet train “at the correct station”. Thanks to Internet, the new players gain valuable time, and it is not uncommon to see a young one play very well in a few years only...
Studying music is a real plus but the self-learner fills this "gap" by often more efficient solutions... I explain myself... During a jam session, you have two possible approaches: either you wonder how to play scales on a particular chord, or you just play and try things. Often, people who study music are prisoners of the of its writing, but we're talking here about blues... This cannot be applied to jazz, for example, for which if you choose the second option, you go straight into the wall
This is still the magic of the blues: with a state of mind, a range, and three blue notes, it sounds... I mean... it can sound


Who would want to be your disciple and who make to you a workshop?
Unfortunately my English does not allow me to teach in any other language than French, and the same goes for the courses. Dates and details are on the site, but in French, sorry... maybe one day...



From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues harmonica?
Undoubtedly Jean-Jacques Milteau! He remains for me THE reference! A unique sound, a palpable humanity relies in any of his notes. And in recent years, Jason Ricci for his energy, his virtuosity and his very modern playing, still rooted in the blues tradition.


Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues and especial about harmonica in France.
The blues is alive and well here! Some artists have even commented on the American scene, winning prestigious awards!
Awek: Stephane Bertolino/harmonica, Mountain men "Barefoot" Iano, the most French of Australians/harmonica, Eric Frerejacques, Nico Wayne Toussaintand, of course Jean-Jacques Milteau, Not forgetting the awesome Rachelle Plas.


Are there any memories from Kilimanjaro, Packard Blues and MG Blues Band, which you’d like to share with us?
Kilimanjaro is the first blues band whom I had the chance to participate in several concerts with. Our meeting was very special I went to the Avignon Festival with just a backpack and my harps, 800 kilometers away from home. One evening I was walking down the street when some distant sax notes... reached me. I was guided by the sound of this “spellbinding” sax... Then I arrived on the main square. I found Kilimanjaro.  They were from my town but I did not know them and they did not know me... I requested to play, they agreed, I used my harps... We played until the police asked us to stop, late at night
After the show, when we realized that we were all from Nancy, France, from the same town. We were amazed by the force of the destiny that guided my steps up to them. They kept me with them for the rest of the tour and returning to Nancy introduced me to their buddies Packard Blues. If there’ss a drummer whom I have a HUGE urge to return with one day, it's Denis Palatin ! This guy is wonderful!



Some music styles can be fad but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Back to my first answer, this music touches the heart with its simplicity: because it is simple, it allows immediate expressiveness; feelings have the color of the blues.


Is there any difference and similarity between the blues, rock, folk, reggae, jazz and country harmonica?
The blues nourished and enriched the other ones, right?


Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of blues harp?
Technically: The 'blue notes’ -1' -2'' -3 '-4' -5 +6o among other things, and in crossharp 2nd pos.
Humanly: I think you can play all the blue notes in the world but if you do so without humility and without listening to others, it will never be the blues.

Paul Lessey's official website

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